LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly

The endless but necessary publishing of books about WWII, fiction, fact and mixtures of both continues at a relentless and consuming pace. Little known stories and characters emerge as great stories full of people of extraordinary bravery, kindness, determination and humanity. Novels like this one showcase the best and worst of human nature and behaviour, in appalling circumstances.

Here we read about three women. Two were real people  - Caroline Ferriday, a New York Broadway actress who at the beginning of the war is working in the French Consulate, doing her best to help French orphans, refugees, trying to keep the lines of communication open. The other actual person is a German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, who takes up a job in the Ravensbruck camp, doing unspeakable things to women prisoners. The third character, Kasia Kurzmerick, although fictional, is based on a number of Polish women who were interred in the camp and subject to medical experimentation. These women became known as the Rabbits - for being experimented on and because they all ended up with a limp, hopping around the camp. It wasn't until after the war that Caroline Ferriday became aware of these survivors of such brutality and used her many connections in New York to ensure they received reparations from the German government.

Fact and fiction are effortlessly woven together, with well rounded characters. The awfulness of the war is always present, its brutality. It is amazing really that any women survived Ravensbruck, let alone those weakened and deformed by the experiments. For what she did at the camp, Herta Oberheuser was the only female doctor tried at the Nuremberg war trials. She is perhaps the most intriguing character, brainwashed like so many Germans were, but also a doctor, pledged to care for the sick, and yet she is able to justify and rationalise her actions in the camp. She can leave, but chooses not to, money being the prime motivation for her to stay. Very disturbing.

And the lilacs? Caroline's favourite plant, and also in Kasia's parents' garden in Lublin, Poland, that were still growing at the end of the war, a symbol of endurance and rebirth. The story of how the author came to write the book is in itself also a great story, and I think she has written a marvellous tribute to Caroline Ferriday and above all the women of Ravensbrook. 

THE TOBACCONIST by Robert Seethaler

A quiet and gentle read set in turbulent times. It is 1938 in Austria. Seventeen year old Franz lives with his mother in a quiet settlement some distant from Vienna. He does nothing, has had a very sheltered upbringing, and is very naive, which I found a little strange, as in a rural community, I imagine there would have been plenty for a strong healthy young man to do. Never mind. His mother's circumstances change, and she is forced to send him off to Vienna to the care and employ of an old friend, the tobacconist Otto Trsnjek - the relationship between the two adults is never fully explained, and I often wondered if he may have been Franz's father. Otto lost a leg during WWI and now owns the shop that sells newspapers and magazines as well as tobacco and cigars.

Franz's eyes are opened to an entirely new and different world, which he slowly gets used to, and in the process develops a personality, because there certainly wasn't one there initially! One of Otto's customers is Sigmund Freud with whom Franz develops an unusual friendship with. The arrival of Hitler completely upends Franz's new life, the city of Vienna and the people who live in it. Franz finds he also has to make choices. As an aside to all this, he falls passionately in love with an interesting young woman with a mysterious life! The ending is a surprise, and strangely enough also satisfying.

So this is a very uneven plot description, because the book itself is quite uneven in much of its narration and its characters. However despite that, which may of course be a reflection on the uncertainty of the time it was set in, I did like it very much. The writing is beautiful - translated from German; Franz's changing relationship with his mother as he grows from young boy to young man is lovely to see. There is a strong message that comes through - determination to be good and find goodness when evil is all around - a message as timely now as it was then. 

SELFIE by Will Storr

I am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

This book takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways -  how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading - this is one of my 'read in the daylight hours' books, rather than a  'read before going to sleep' book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self.  After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient - curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity /Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below - neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can't get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the 'self esteem' industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter - how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism - where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn't! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren't going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way - how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can't change yourself - there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

NOT MY FATHER'S SON by Alan Cumming

Outstanding. The courage it takes to put one's life and history, warts, skeletons and all, right out there in the public domain for all to see is immense. It is unlikely that many of us would ever have this opportunity or permission to do so. For well-known and admired Scottish actor Alan Cumming, he was able to explore some deep family secrets via the TV programme 'Who Do You Think You Are'. I love the BBC and Australian series and have watched just about every single one made. Some stand out more than others, the Alan Cumming episode being one of those that I remember more than others. So to be able to read the memoir behind the programme was a book I could not ignore.

In the programme Alan wants to learn the story of his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, who left his family in the early 1950s, and ended dying in somewhat mysterious circumstances in Malaya only a few years later. Alan wanted to do this for his mother, Mary, and it ends up being a much bigger story than Alan or his mother had ever envisaged.  Unbeknownst to the viewer, there was another huge story going on behind the scenes - Alan's estranged and seriously ill father informing Alan via his older brother Tom, that he is not actually Alan's biological father.

The resulting memoir which covers the summer of 2010, the period of the making of the TV episode, narrates this tumultuous time in Alan's life. The chapters alternate between now and then, Alan's childhood/growing up years. His father was a monster, and so Alan tells us how awful and terrifying his childhood was, how his family life was, and the indelible mark it left on him, his brother and his mother as the years pass. And I can't say anything more, because it will spoil the reading experience.

Alan is brave opening his heart and soul, for uncovering family secrets, with the result some online reviews have been negative as a result. But I loved this, his search for belonging and kinship with both his never known grandfather, and his own father, the intense love he has found within his family and his personal relationships despite the appalling abuse he suffered. And as that TV programme has always been one of my favourites for its treasure hunt and history focus, I loved  this book even more. What it has highlighted too is the absolute uselessness and pointlessness of having family secrets and refusing to discuss stuff. One day it will all come to light, and quite possibly cause further pain and anguish when it never needed to be like that.

THE WONDER by Emma Neale

As the days go by since I finished this, my admiration and respect for this novel, both for its storyline and for its writing increases. Incredibly atmospheric, the poverty and despair of mid-19th century Ireland, combined with the rampant folk superstition and blind faith in the church pervades every page, every conversation. The arrival into the community of a nurse, Lib, veteran of the Crimea War, and trained by the amazing Florence Nightingale herself, with her modern and practical ideas, challenges everything this community holds dear.

The Wonder is an 11 year old girl - Anna - who has not eaten for some months, and is being hailed as a religious miracle for her ability to still be alive. Lib has been engaged by some community leaders to watch over Anna, sharing the task with an elderly nun. With her fact-based medical background Lib knows something is not quite right with this child still being alive after so many months of apparently self-starvation and she is determined to uncover the hoax. She is facing an uphill struggle in this very Catholic community, plus the threat she is posing to the  increased income showing Anna off to believing visitors is bringing to the family.

Lib remains stoic and focused in her mission, however as the days go by, she realises there is much more to Anna's fasting than is immediately obvious. She finds that her reason for being there is changing, leading her to make some tough and brave decisions.

This book grew on me so much as the story unfolded. It took a while for me to fully engage with what was taking place, but was certainly well worth persevering with. The writer evokes so well the precarious existence of the Irish at this time, the dirt, squalor, hopelessness, the hold the church has over the minutiae of daily life. It was gloomy and depressing to read a lot of this. The frustrating struggle Lib has when she blows into the community like an unwanted wind shows how  far apart people can be in their combined mission of looking after an 11 year old child. 

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

This is a big book, both physically - 600 plus pages - and in scope. Enormous in fact. Numerous and diverse story lines, numerous and diverse characters, some very tenuous links, moving back and forth in time between 1968 to 1988 to 2011, there is a lot going on. But for the most part it holds together superbly well, showcasing the wonderful story telling talents of the writer, and his mastery of language and writing. I really loved this, it was a complete surprise, and  most enjoyable, if somewhat difficult to hold open due to its massive size.

The cover shows a protest, young hippy people in a sit down somewhere in the US. Chicago actually in 1968, thousands of students protesting the Vietnam War in that year that has come to be the defining year of a tumultuous decade in the USA. Faye is the young woman with glasses, Sebastian is the young man she is leaning against, and Alice is the fierce looking young woman with sunglasses. Faye is the pivotal character in the whole book, it is really her story, how her actions and the things that happen to her at this time impact so critically on her life and that of her son Samuel. Most of the story is told from Samuel's point of view. In 2011 he is in his early thirties, single,  a university professor of English, disillusioned, bored, spends more time as an avatar in his favourite online game Elfscape.

With his job under threat due to the self indulgent actions of one of his students, Samuel, once a promising writer who has never delivered on a book he was paid in advance for, now finds himself facing the prospect of doing a hatchet job biography of his mother Faye in order to save himself. Faye abandoned Samuel and her husband Henry when Samuel was 11, and has never been heard of or seen since. Now she has been arrested for allegedly throwing handfuls of gravel at an aspiring presidential candidate during a walk about in a public park. Samuel, therefore, in order to save himself, takes on the task of hunting down his mother and facing up to why she left her family.

This is such a simplistic plot outline even though it is actually quite long, but against this background so much goes on - Samuel's childhood in the days leading up to his mother's disappearance and his peculiar friendship with twins Bethany and Bishop, his mother's story which really begins with her father migrating from Norway after the war. Why did that happen? He fills her with dread and fear with his stories of Norwegian mythical creatures including the Nix, which stay with poor Faye for far too long. There are a host of other characters too, the most interesting although really completely irrelevant to the overall book, being one of the other players in the Elfscape game. His near death from too much time on line is very much a parable for modern times, and for me was one of the highlights. In many ways this novel is a social history of the USA, much of it being centred on Chicago and the riots that followed that took place in 1968. Many of the issues important then are still important today, making this novel very relevant reading.