Nancy Wake – Peter Fitzsimons

Nancy Wake – Peter FitzsimonsNancy Wake by Peter FitzSimons
Published by Harper Collins on January 28th 2001
Pages: 297

'Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work I used to think that it didn't mater if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living'.Nancy Wake

In the early 1930's, Nancy Wake was a young woman enjoying a bohemian life in Paris. By the end of the Second World War she was the Gestapo's most wanted person.

As a naive, young journalist, Nancy Wake witnessed a horrific scene of Nazi violence in a Viennese street. From that moment, she declared that she would do everything in her power to rid Europe of the Nazi presence. What began as a courier job here and there, became a highly successful escape network for Allied soldiers, perfectly camouflaged by Nancy's high-society life in Marseille. Her network was soon so successful - and so notorious - that he had to flee France to escape the Gestapo who had dubbed her 'the white mouse' for her knack of slipping through its traps.

But Nancy was a passionate enemy of the Nazis and refused to stay away. She trained with the British Special Operations Executive and parachuted back into France behind enemy lines. Again, this singular woman rallied to the cause, helping to lead a powerful underground fighting force, the Maquis. Supplying weapons and training the civilian Maquis, organising Allied parachute drops, cycling four hundred kilometres across a mountain range to find a new transmitting radio - nothing seemed too difficult in her fight against the Nazis.

Peter FitzSimons reveals Nancy Wake's compelling story, a tale of an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things.

This is the sixth book in my Dymocks Reading Challenge for 2020. I’d suggest you stop looking for the first five books on my blog as I’ve been very bad at writing about them in reading order. Especially when I’ve read more than one book in a week and have only written once per week. Even with my maths I can’t make that add up properly. So far all six books have been from my TBR Pile and that makes me happy, I will have to branch out eventually, but I’m putting that off as long as possible. This book is in the ‘A book that teaches you something new’ category. What I didn’t know is that Hitler tried to seize power in Munich, Bavaria during the 8th and 9th November 1923 and failed losing fifteen of his followers. When I say ‘losing fifteen of his followers’ I mean they died in the attempt. I’ve had to research some of this information and the knowledge is chilling. I can’t help wondering if the 9th November 1938 was chosen for Kristallnacht on purpose. It’s almost as if Hitler waited one year for each of his followers who died before taking revenge for their loss out on the Jews. I think I’m stretching a point but it’s certainly something to think about.

This book is one of those ‘very interesting’ books. I found it really hard to get into and I’m not sure why. I’ve previously read Nancy Wake’s autobiography so I’m trying to put it down to the fact that I already knew what had happened. But once the story started to develop I was hooked.

What you get with this book is well written prose. What you don’t get is typos. I rarely complain about them but this book only had one typo. When there are fewer typos I find it much easier for my brain to drop down into the story.

What you also get is lots of information about the type of person Nancy Wake was, what made her tick and what made her hit the roof and take action someone else would regret. Wake has been sent back to France by the English to help arm and train the Maquisards, those Frenchmen who are living rough and dedicated to evicting the Nazis from France.

The English command had decided the best way of defeating Germany is to defend France. And they’ve figured on a two-pronged attack. The first one is to arm and train the Maquisards. In this Nancy Wake and a number of other very special people were trained with many useful skills including how to kill with their bare hands, weapons, explosives, radio and so much more. They were then parachuted into France to work their magic. This book gives many details of how all of this worked.

But why Wake?

Well, because she had already made herself a thorn in the side of the Nazis. She did so much damage that one day she found it safer to be the one taking the Underground rather than helping others to escape. It took her six months but she eventually got to safety in England.

Having read both this book and Wake’s own autobiography I now have a much better understanding of how things worked, at least in that part of WWII. I’m in even more awe of her than I was before. Born in Australia she struck many blows for freedom, but none of them for Australia and so she never received any Australian medals. One thing this book did teach me is how much Gallipoli and, therefore, Anzac Day really hit home to the Australian and New Zealand people. I knew that many people lost their lives and many more lives were affected but I didn’t fully understand. Now I have a better understanding.

If you’re a war buff you need this book in your life then you can buy it here or in your favourite bookshop. You’ll notice other Nancy Wake books available for sale as well. The autobiography and the biography by Russell Braddon are both quoted in this book by Peter Fitzsimons. I’m told the one by Russell Braddon is the best. One day I’ll read it any find out why.

Cilka’s Journey – Heather Morris

Cilka’s Journey – Heather MorrisCilka's Journey by Heather Morris
Published by Bonnier Echo on October 1st 2019
Pages: 440

In this follow-up to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the author tells the story, based on a true one, of a woman who survives Auschwitz, only to find herself locked away again.

Cilka Klein is 18 years old when Auschwitz-Birkenau is liberated by Soviet soldiers. But Cilka is one of the many women who is sentenced to a labor camp on charges of having helped the Nazis--with no consideration of the circumstances Cilka and women like her found themselves in as they struggled to survive. Once at the Vorkuta gulag in Sibera, where she is to serve her 15-year sentence, Cilka uses her wits, charm, and beauty to survive.

This is the most amazing story. If you have issues with the Holocaust then I suggest you don’t read it. Morris doesn’t pull many punches with her descriptions.

I’ve always heard that life in Siberia for a prisoner was absolutely dreadful. What with the weather and the brutality. I’ve read a little about them from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but I wanted to read more. And more is what I got from this book.

Cilka was a young girl of 16 when she entered Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. She survived because she was young and pretty, she was protected by the Commandant at Birkenau who used her at his will. When she was released she was 19. She’d done her best to save some ladies from beatings or the predations of the men, but wasn’t in a position to save their lives. While doing so had made herself look as if she was collaborating with the Nazis. The Russians sent her to a prison camp in Siberia known as Vorkuta for fifteen years.

This book takes us back and forth between Birkenau and the Vorkuta Gulag where she was placed after she was liberated from Birkenau. Cilka’s Journey shows us the reality behind the woman. It’s not entirely her life story, some of it has been made up, some of the people are several people put into one. But this book gives us a really good idea of how Cilka might have survived. It helps the reader to understand why some people came through the Holocaust, through concentration camps and stopped talking about the past.

I have grown up always knowing Holocaust survivors. People who escaped Europe in time, people who were hidden in Catholic families as children, people who went through one or more concentration camps and saw more horror than you feel you can survive. Each person had their own method of coping with it. Some of them have spoken about it at length and continue to do so despite being over 90. Other people didn’t speak about it for decades, they came to Melbourne, Australia and just started living a new life, they tried to ignore the horrors they’ve been through.

This behaviour is typical of every war. I’ve spoken to many people who have said their parent or grandparent never spoke about the horrors they went through in WWI. It was only when researching for their parent’s or grandparent’s very significant birthday or their eulogy that they would find how much terror they had experienced. Many people returned from WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, the Korean War or any of the more modern wars shell shocked and not able, or willing, to speak of what they’d seen and experienced. The families had no idea how to deal with them.

Through Cilka’s life in Vorkuta we see how she doesn’t speak about what happened in Birkenau. We see how the fact that she looked as if she was a Nazi collaborator might get her in trouble in one of the worst places on Earth. We also see what life was really like there. How cold it was, how hard the work was, how little the authorities cared about the people in their charge. It really felt as if people were sent there to do hard, physical labour until they died. They were not really meant to come back to civilisation.

Because Cilka has facility with languages and because she learns really quickly she is brought into the hospital to help the medical staff and to train as a nurse. She doesn’t want to stand out from the ladies in her hut and so she almost doesn’t take on the job. When she does it’s with the idea in mind that she can bring things back to her hut to help make their lives a little more comfortable. She brings back food the patients don’t eat. She brings back used bandages, once washed and boiled they can be used for anything useful, including wrapping around feet to provide a little more warmth. Some of these cleaned bandages were disassembled and used to make lace to make things look a little more feminine.

The detail in this book is sometimes enough to help me understand what life in the gulag would have been like, sometimes it is not. I would have liked more details about the tools the workers used. A little external reading shows me the workers were given picks to break up the frozen ground, this isn’t in the book. Why isn’t it in the book? Because Cilka did very little work outside the hospital until she ended up on ambulance detail.

Yes, there are issues with this book. There are issues with every book. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what those are as I don’t know enough about Siberia and gulags. I can tell you it is sometimes safe to say nothing, sometimes wiser to say nothing, and that’s what I’m doing now – using a whole paragraph to say nothing.

Anyway, enough words from me. Here is the book should you wish to buy it. You can buy it from your bookshop of choice, you don’t have to buy through mine. I make no money from your clicks.

Night World Volume One – L.J. Smith

Night World Volume One – L.J. SmithSecret Vampire, Daughters of Darkness, and Enchantress (Night World, #1-3) by L.J. Smith
Published by Hodder Children's Books on May 7th 2009
Pages: 593

Vampires, werewolves, witches, shape shifters -- they live among us without our knowledge. Night World is their secret society, a secret society with very strict rules. And falling in love breaks all the laws of the Night World.

In Secret Vampire, Poppy thought the summer would last forever. Then she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now Poppy's only hope for survival is James, her friend and secret love. A vampire in the Night World, James can make Poppy immortal. But first they both must risk everything to go against the laws of Night World.

Fugitives from Night World, three vampire sisters leave their isolated home to live among humans in Daughters of Darkness. Their brother, Ash, is sent to bring the girls back, but he falls in love with their beautiful friend.

Two witch cousins fight over their high school crush. It's a battle between black magic and white magic in Enchantress.

YA Romance is not something I’d normally read. I made the mistake of joining the Dymocks Reading Challenge 2020. You can join in the discussion on Facebook or show off your reading using the #DymocksReadingChallenge hashtag to go into the draw to win prizes. They have printed a postcard with all the categories on it so you can just tick them off. I’ve just joined in on Facebook. I know it’s sacrilege but I really don’t need more books. I’m gradually whittling down my To Be Read pile, in part due to this challenge.

I picked up Night World Volume One because I felt it would be good to knock off ‘Book One in a Fantasy Series’. I don’t mind a bit of YA so I settled in for a good read. I was horrified to find out that romance is the key element of this book. I now have a good space on my shelf as this is the first in three volumes on my shelf…I won’t bother reading the other two.

As YA goes, it’s not too bad. I’ve read some shockers and I’ve read some which are absolutely brilliant. This falls somewhere closer to the brilliant. There is some reasonable world building in this book and I’m assuming it continues to the next two. The characters seem reasonable, although when some of them fall in love they change so completely I couldn’t help wondering what was happening.

This is set in the real world but in a real world that has vampires, werewolves and witches. The vampires and witches settled their differences enough many generations ago to create a ‘night world’, a world where the vampires, werewolves and witches can operate reasonably safely. They interact with humans but it’s forbidden to tell them about the Night World and they must not fall in love with humans.

And if I go any further it’ll be spoilers but it will illustrate why I didn’t enjoy the book and won’t be reading books two and three. Suffice to say that I really can’t stand romance. I only completed the book because I wanted to put a tick on my Dymocks Challenge list. I’ll have to find another fantasy series to read book 1 of as Night World Volume One goes towards ‘A book outside your usual genre’.

There are actually three stories in the book. Once I’d finished the first I did wonder if I could stop there and just claim I’d read book one. If you look at Booktopia you’ll find some for sale, in case you’re interested.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography – Humphrey Carpenter

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography – Humphrey CarpenterJ.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
Published by George Allen & Unwin (London) on May 5th 1977
Pages: 287

The authorized biography of the creator of Middle-earth. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE SILMARILLION and become fascinated about the very private man behind the books. Born in South Africa in January 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned in childhood and brought up in near-poverty. He served in the first World War, surviving the Battle of the Somme, where he lost many of the closest friends he'd ever had. After the war he returned to the academic life, achieving high repute as a scholar and university teacher, eventually becoming Merton Professor of English at Oxford where he was a close friend of C.S. Lewis and the other writers known as The Inklings.

Then suddenly his life changed dramatically. One day while grading essay papers he found himself writing 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- and worldwide renown awaited him.

Humphrey Carpenter was given unrestricted access to all Tolkien's papers, and interviewed his friends and family. From these sources he follows the long and painful process of creation that produced THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION and offers a wealth of information about the life and work of the twentieth century's most cherished author.

This is the biography of Tolkien I should have read many years ago. It has all the information I’ve been wanting to know. It also answered the question many people have been asking about both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that of why were there so few women written into the stories.

J.R.R. Tolkien was just an ordinary boy with an extraordinary love for the stories behind the stories, and an extraordinary love for languages. He loved both of these things so, so much that he devised several of his own languages, including writing his diary in one of them. This proved problematic. Devising a language takes time and experimentation. Tolkien sometimes changed his mind on what a word actually meant or how it should be spelled and that change is reflected in his diary partly with his word choice.

While he was going through this period he also wrote many legends behind the story. This became The Silmarillion. Many people think it was written after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but they’d be wrong and this biography illustrates this very point on many occasions. Tolkien was adamant The Silmarillion be published and tried to include it in his contract. The publisher eventually gave in as he wanted more of The Hobbit story.

Tolkien was such a perfectionist that The Silmarillion was not published in his lifetime. He found himself unable to complete it. We have his son, Christopher Tolkien, to thank for the publication of this vast and important body of work. Following in his father’s footsteps, he lectured in English Language in New College, Oxford between 1964 and 1975. Sadly, Christopher Tolkien died this month, but he was given the Bodley Medal to recognise his outstanding contributions to literature, culture, science and communication. If you check, you’ll find he’s also responsible for collating much of his father’s other works, not just this one book.

I’ve seen much written about the lack of women in Tolkien’s works. They think he didn’t know much about women and while it may be true, that’s not the reason there were so few in his works.

Tolkien made some very good friends in university. They met weekly for discussions on many things to do with literature. They all served in the war with most of them not coming back. He wanted to remember them and so we wrote a ‘boys’ own adventure’. I can’t say how much of his friends were depicted as people in his works but essentially he’s remembering his friends and the good times he had with them.

All of this information and a whole lot more besides is depicted within the pages of the biography. The first chapter shows us Tolkien as the author illustrates both Tolkien and his wife during a visit he makes to them. We actually get to see Tolkien!!! I must admit I read that first chapter and promptly had to close the book and let my inner fan girl have a few moments – it was very emotional.

Humphrey Carpenter has since written a number of other books. Just perusing this listing on Booktopia I find more books of his I would really like to read. If you want you can even buy J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography and find out why I’m raving about it.

Schmattes – Lesley Sharon Rosenthal

Schmattes – Lesley Sharon RosenthalSchmattes: Stories Of Fabulous Frocks, Funky Fashion And Flinders Lane by Lesley Sharon Rosenthal
on 2005

When I found this book I almost cheered. It’s a different book to what I thought it would be and I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or not. It has some of my family stories in it and I kind of got the impression it would be a history of Flinders Lane and the fashion industry. Instead it’s just a collection of the stories surrounding the fashion industry. It mostly includes Flinders Lane as that was the centre of the fashion industry for so long. Reading the cover with the words “Stories of fabulous frocks, funky fashion and Flinders Lane’ gives you all that you need to know. I got the wrong impression when the book was published way back in 2005. But enough of me, let’s look at the book.

It has so many stories, enough to make any fashion conscious person weep for joy. There are stories about the beginning of many fashion labels and designers, stories about people just starting out as sales representatives and stories about the closing down of many businesses. Schmattes is a Yiddish word meaning rags, and although this means the fashion industry in Flinders Lane was being referred to as the rag trade it actually meant far more than that. It meant family, friends, and competitors who would socialise after hours.

This book took me much longer to read than it should. I almost gave up on many occasions only persisting because I wanted to see which family members would be featured. As it turned out there was some family mentioned I hadn’t expected and others glossed over that I had expected. The reason this book took far too long is because it needs a good solid proofread.

I don’t like to talk about the negative aspects of books. Generally, it’s just me being judgmental about the one or two typos I find in a book. Unfortunately, this was far worse and I feel it would make a good object lesson for any author, or aspiring author, out there.

Typesetting makes the book easier on the eye. If you have a talented typesetter then they can make any book really flow even if the reading material is very boring. As an author you can facilitate that by using your software wisely. Don’t use your space bar at the beginning of each paragraph, make sure to use the Tab function. You can set this globally by going into the Paragraph settings of your file and setting the first line to indent. What this means is that when you hit Enter to start a new paragraph the software will automatically indent your new paragraph consistently. What I found in this book is that indenting in paragraphs was not consistent. Some had no indentation at all, while others had far less than they should. On some pages I could look down the left margin and see several different types of indentation. All of this makes it hard to know when an old paragraph ends and a new paragraph starts.

Using proper quote marks makes it easy for the reader to know that the words you’re using are someone else’s and not your own. There was so much inconsistency in this book I struggled to figure out who was saying what. Some quotes were italicised while some were in quote marks. At some stage there were entire stories that were italicised but they sounded as if the author had written them.

Typos drive me banananananananas. Deliberate typo for emphasis, although some people will also get the reference and correct me on the number of letters. I called a friend out on the typos in his book once. He told me he tries to ensure he has no more typos than Stephen King. I haven’t read a Stephen King book since then to find out how many typos this means a book should have. I don’t like any typos, I’m going to be combing my books with a fine-tooth comb to ensure there are none and I’ll endeavour to have a good proofreader to ensure I’m write (right). In this book the typos varied from the wrong word choice to the letters switched around. There were far more than I’m comfortable with and reading them made me stop and yell. Essentially, it interfered with my reading.

A good proofreader would have noticed all of these things I’ve mentioned and brought them to the attention of the author. I’m assuming this book was not proofread by an outside party. I’m also assuming this was skipped deliberately. Schmattes was published with the help of a grant. Grants have deadlines to ensure people actually complete the project. I’ve just applied for a grant for my synagogue, and we had to give a starting date and completion date, with the completion date being no more than three years from the start date. If Rosenthal was having trouble getting the book published by the deadline then I can imagine a proofread would have been omitted. And bearing in mind this book is made up of anecdotes and interviews with many people, then it might be hard to pin people down to an interview time. I’m finding pinning people down to interview them is sometimes challenging, sometimes they don’t want to be interviewed, other times they’re happy but finding a time is an interesting challenge. And if Rosenthal proofread her own book then that’s a no-no also, I’ve just glanced through this article and taken out an extra comma, something that is easily missed as an author generally sees what they’re expecting to see and not what is really there.

I do wonder about some of her research. My uncle’s story about standing in a shop for seven hours not sure how to approach the counter and ask for the buyer was interesting. But I have a personal insight into this story. I can’t imagine my uncle standing there, uncertain, for seven hours. Nor can I imagine shop assistants leaving someone to stand still for seven hours. I wouldn’t put it past my uncle to have totally exaggerated the length of time he stayed there waiting. I can’t ask him as he died about fifteen months ago, and I suspect he would have corroborated the seven hours. But I do have thoughts about that story’s veracity.

If you have some interest in fashion or history then this is an interesting book to read. I love how it has my grandfather’s story of making up his own tartan, McBlack, so he could sell skirts or kilts. Yes, he got told off and stopped making it. But you also get some big names such as Prue Acton, this shows how she started young. And, as readers without the insight into the industry that I have you get to believe all the stories, most people don’t have relatives who grew up in the business. I love how Rosenthal talks about my great-grandfather who started in the schmattes industry, making his son and later on his grandson interested. Often these were family affairs, going down the generations. I have some things from the family business in my house including a jumper, a size 16. This size 16 jumper illustrates how the fashion industry has changed its sizes. I swear it’s no more than a current size 12, but possibly a 10.