My thanks go out to Sarah, representing publisher Bookouture, for saving me a place on this lovely ‘Books On Tour’ schedule.
I also need to thank the great NetGalley team, for always making life so easy when downloading review copies.
THE PILOT’S GIRL – (Hanni Winter #2)
‘Smile, nod, and don’t breathe a word of what happens here. Or I’ll put you on the next train to Auschwitz myself.’
Four years later. Hanni Winter shivers in her thin coat as she hurries through the empty Berlin streets to her job. Despite the freezing winter and poverty all around, her cheeks flush when she meets the man she is photographing today, charismatic Tony Miller, the American pilot risking his life to bring food and provisions to the starving people of the city. But her rush of joy turns to ash as she sees the man behind him…
It’s been years since Hanni fled her terrible past, but seeing Reiner Foss now brings back harrowing memories of the man they called The Showman, and of the concentration camp he commanded. The last time she tried to expose him, Hanni almost died, can she dare to try again? Or should she seize the chance she sees in Tony’s sparkling eyes to leave the horrors of the war behind?
Hanni is no longer the frightened child she was when the Nazis devastated her life beyond repair. She vows to avenge every person who suffered at Reiner’s hands. But does her attraction to Tony leave her vulnerable? Can Hanni protect her loved ones from her past, or will the cost of fighting her demons ultimately prove more than she can pay?
Catherine is originally from the North of England, studied history at Manchester University, and is now living very happily in Glasgow with her husband, their children both having grown up and left home – one of them living conveniently living in Berlin, Catherine’s favourite City and the setting for two of her WWII historical novels.
Following a rather meandering career which has jumped between marketing, teaching and politics (Catherine hastily adds that readers shouldn’t try and join the dots), she has finally managed to become what she always wanted to be, which is an author.
Catherine admits to being a story lover as well as a story writer and nothing fascinates her more than a strong female lead and a quest. She always hopes that is what readers will find when they pick up one of her books.
As well as historical fiction, she write short stories which have been published in magazines including Writers’ Forum, iScot & Myslexia, and have also been placed in competitions, including first prize in the 2019 Fiction 500 Short Story Competition. She blogs on the 22nd of each month as part of The History Girls collective.
If Catherine is not at her desk, you’ll most probably find her in the cinema, or just follow the loud music!
Visit Catherine at her website
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“Dates are so important to history – they are often the first thing we learn; they are the way we organise our view of the past. What has struck me more and more as I have studied and written about the events of World War Two is how misleading the end date of 1945 actually is. When I was younger, I naively imagined 1945 as a chessboard with all the pieces returned to their starting points and the map of Europe once again looing as it did in 1939. That is, of course, very far from the truth. The shadows of the conflict stretched on, in some cases for decades. Not just in terms of the personal cost – the lives lost and broken – but also in the chaos caused by displaced people, destroyed cities and political leaders who were still pursuing aggression rather than peace.
That is very much the background to this second book about Hanni and Freddy. Berlin was barely recovering when the 1948 Soviet blockade began, and to be plunged back into shortages and the fear of another war looming must have been a frightening experience”
VIKTORIAPARK – BERLIN, 29 MAY 1947
The image was so vivid, Hanni could hear the child laughing. A little boy. His hair dark like Freddy’s, curling like hers. A curious boy with an eye for patterns. His pockets permanently bulging with pebbles and feathers and oddly speckled leaves. He was so perfect, so real. Hanni could see him a few feet away from where she was sitting. Crouched at the edge of Viktoriapark’s tumbling waterfall, observing the way the spray danced over his head, working out the quickest pathway up through the slippery stones to the top. A child full of life and utterly fearless.
29 JUNE 1948
He was going back. It was a strange thought. It also wasn’t the right word. Back implied returning to a place where somebody or something was waiting or wanting him. That definitely wasn’t true, but he could hardly use home. Back it would have to be. To Berlin after eleven unasked-for years away. That was a strange thought too.
“Tony had hated that. He had wanted to kill the psychiatrist who had dealt with him after the Berlin bombings for saying it. But he had wanted to go home, that was true. Not to find the Mullers anymore. Tony had done his research after the war’s end – he knew that they were gone, on trains, to camps, into hell. So not to find the loved ones he had lost but to make his birthplace pay for all it had stolen”
“Killers inserted themselves into the places where they killed. They left something, or they took something; they made their presence felt”
“Freddy knew that wasn’t fair, but Freddy didn’t care about fair. What he cared about was having someone else to blame but himself for his carefully constructed walls collapsing. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Freddy had walked everywhere side by side with his ghosts. There had been days when they were more real than the people actually surrounding him. In the end, that had almost derailed him, so – with a lot of time and a lot of pain and a lot of practice – Freddy had learned to control the mess the war had made of his life and to lock his family away as deeply as he had done with Buchenwald”
“It’s not because I’m weak; it’s because children are different: children are not meant to die”
“You have choices, Hanni. You don’t have to let the past rule the rest of your life”
“Smile, nod, and don’t breathe a word of what happens here. Or I’ll put you on the next train to Auschwitz myself”
Okay! So this is the second book in a planned series of four and whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the author that each works extremely well as a stand alone story, reading them as a set is definitely the best way to go for me personally. The backstory from book #1 is fleshed out in more than enough detail so as not to make the reader feel ‘cheated’ in any way, however there are some subtle nuances in the narrative and dialogue, which really get under the skin of the principal characters, Freddy and Hanni, bringing them to life with all their strengths and vulnerabilities, making theirs a journey well worth following from the very beginning. It really becomes obvious in this episode, that alongside Freddy and Hanni’s personal journeys and relationships, the books are also developing into a really excellent WWII historical murder/mystery series, with a deeply disturbed serial killer in this episode, stacking up the bodies almost quicker than they can be counted.
As ever, not wishing to offer too many ‘spoilers’, here is a very cut-down synopsis of events, which I hope will whet the appetite. We are in Berlin during the 1948/49 period, when a defeated and broken city is being divided up and occupied by the western allies of Britain, France and the USA in the west, with the Soviet Union in the east. Life for the average Berliner is still a struggle, with fear, corruption, despair and deprivation being very much the norm. Freddy is a police inspector and Hanni works as a part time forensic photographer for his department, alongside freelancing on her private commissions and personal portfolio of pictures, which she hopes to display in her own studio when she has the funds to acquire suitable premises. The problem is that Freddy and Hanni, despite being instantly attracted to one another, both have secrets which once revealed, have the power to completely break them emotionally, tear them apart irrevocably and toss their fledgling relationship asunder.
Hanni Winter, is formerly Hannelore Foss, daughter of Nazi Reiner Foss, a dedicated ‘showman’ of The Reich, whose iron command of the concentration camp he was assigned to oversee and the relish with which he executed the task, was renowned and feared. Hanni has denounced her father, who by some trickery has managed to survive the war, reinvent himself as an upstanding German citizen and is now working for the British to help rebuild the city. She is dedicated to bringing about either his capture or death, whichever opportunity presents itself first, however Reiner, who has now adopted the name Emil, is aware of her plans and is scheming one more ‘cleansing’ act of his own. Freddy is a German Jew, who has survived the brutality of the concentration camps, although he was unable to save the rest of his family who were not quite so fortunate, for which he can never forgive himself and which tortures his every waking hour and is the cause of the constant nightmares when he closes his eyes.
Eventually, little by little, Hanni manages to get Freddy to open up to her and his story and turmoil is laid bare. Although cathartic to a point, it is obvious from his telling, that the scars will never heal and neither will his hatred of the Nazi masters of the concentration camp, who sent his family to their deaths and almost broke him both physically and mentally. Hanni has so far kept Freddy in the dark about her past, although he is aware that there is something or someone, keeping her at an arm’s length distance from him. Hanni hopes that one day she will have the courage to reveal her own secret to Freddy, although she has it firmly fixated in her mind that she has to put an end to her father’s freedom and hold him to public account for his actions, before she will feel vindicated in revealing her true identity to Freddy, in the hope that he will be able to forgive the deception surrounding her past; although she fears that his reaction may not be one of reconciliation, but of hatred and denial.
For now however, they work together on keeping order in a disturbingly lawless society of gang culture, although their latest assignment may prove to be their downfall, if they can’t stem the flow of bodies, solve the clues and crack the case, as Freddy’s boss, Chief Inspector Brack, is unashamedly racist and out to get Freddy discredited and off the force at the earliest opportunity. The perpetrator of the crimes cannot be mentioned here, as their identity becomes obvious to readers fairly early on in the story , although Freddy and Hanni have some investigating of their own to do before they are in a position to name their suspect. That we know exactly the whys and wherefores of the criminal’s heinous acts, really pales into insignificance when compared to their state of mind and motives, which makes them eminently more dangerous and devious, than either Freddy, Hanni, or any of their departmental colleagues can possibly begin to imagine or plan for.
This gripping, highly textured, intense and fast paced, multi-layered storyline, is well structured in short, seamless and easy to navigate chapters, with fluently rendered, crisp narrative and dialogue. Whilst the murders themselves are obviously of paramount importance, equal focus is afforded in the storytelling, to both the emotional fragility of the characters, and the brutally claustrophobic and highly toxic theatre of operations in which they live and work. Some immersive societal and cultural research really drew me into the story and shone a spotlight on the spectres and ghosts of the past, as they continue to loom large and fearsomely frightening over everyday life, in a city which is now in the unenviable position of being divided up as the spoils of war. Racial tensions still run high between the Jewish and minority groups who survived the ‘cleansing’ and the Nazi’s who have successfully insinuated themselves, unobserved and unchallenged, into prominent positions of a post war German society. Corruption, gang warfare, poverty and homelessness are all too visible on almost every street corner and the mixed caretaker governments can’t agree on just about anything, yet more proof if it were really needed, that not only can war be a great leveller and help unite people against a common enemy, but it also has the power to divide, especially for a city set to lose its very identity.
Similarly, Catherine’s portrayal of the fragility and frailty of the human mind is carried out sensitively, sympathetically and compassionately, in her well developed cast of multi-faceted characters, who, whether they are on the side of good or bad, are authentically realistic and genuinely believable to the individual roles which have been created for them. All are understandably complex, emotionally starved and vulnerable, with little or no synergy or dynamism between them, which really divided my feelings and emotions right down the middle. Many were raw and passionate, yet still authentic, genuine and believable. Others were unreliable, volatile, manipulative and duplicitous and I’m not sure that I really connected with, invested in, or identified with, any of them totally. In various guises and to differing degrees, they are all broken and damaged people, from a society which has torn itself asunder and they now need time to rebuild their confidence and trust in the possibilities of a new life going forward. However Catherine has done an amazing job of giving all her cast a clear voice with which to begin telling their individual stories, with combat exhaustion (PTSD) featuring strongly, not only amongst the military population, but also within the wider civilian society, whose lives have been irrevocably changed by forces completely beyond their control by atrocities they have been forced to witness and the heinous acts they have been coerced into committing. For some, like our murderer, those demons are ever present, even though the persona they project to the outside world can appear totally normal and at complete odds with their inner turmoil. They are definitely a very ‘Walter Mitty’ character, making them unpredictable and prone to uncontrolled moments of dangerous and deadly rage, alongside the very controlled and planned schedule of murder which consumes their every waking moment.
When it transpires that having new ‘caretakers’ of their beloved city, makes little difference to the old prejudices and corruption in high places, and having already walked away from a personal relationship with Freddie once before, when the dust has settled on this particular case, and with both of them only making it out alive to fight another day by the skin of their teeth, will Hanni summon her reserves of emotional energy and courage to come clean with Freddy about her past, thus marking a new and honest beginning for them both? What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who can fire my imagination, stimulate my senses and stir my emotions. So far for me this journey has been totally heart-breaking in just about every sense of the word, so it would be great to discover where your experience leads you.
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was made available by Bookouture and supplied by NetGalley
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!
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