loulamac’s #CBRV review #65: The Conductor by Sarah Quigley


In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany broke its non-aggression pact with Stalin’s USSR, and marched on and besieged Leningrad. Hitler’s plan was to wipe the city from the face of the earth, and he very nearly succeeded. Over the 872 days of the siege, air raids and artillery bombardment reduced the urban area to rubble, while famine, disease and the extreme cold of Russian winters claimed the lives of 1.5m people. Destruction on that scale is impossible to fathom from my safe middle-class 21st century viewpoint, but in The Conductor, a brave fictional web woven around real-life events, Sarah Quigley brings the shocking statistics into sharp relief through the experiences of individuals.

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of Leningrad’s most famous sons. In the throes of writing his seventh symphony, he is a man possessed, and so delays his inevitable evacuation to the relative safety of Siberia for as long as he can. So immersed is he in his work that he sleepwalks through the campaign of German shelling, losing friends and colleagues to the war effort and the declining health of his wife and children as they waste away before his unseeing eyes. His best friend is violinist Nikolai, who lost his wife some years before. Raising his daughter with the help of his spinster sister-in-law, he is forced to make a choice that haunts him, and he finds solace in the music composed by his friend. Finally we have Elias Karlsberg, the second-rate conductor of the third-rate Radio Orchestra, who is plagued by self-doubt as he struggles to keep his elderly mother alive. Shostakovich flees to complete the final movement of the symphony, and after the full score is flown in over enemy lines, Karlsberg and his orchestra are commissioned to perform it for the dying city.

In the music of Shostakovich, the musicians and their conductor find beauty and passion in horrific circumstances. As the winter snows thaw to reveal corpses that have been mutilated for meat, the orchestra of ‘walking cadavers’ battles through personal loss, illness and malnutrition to deliver their performance, broadcast on loud speakers throughout the city and at enemy lines. It is a testament to Quigley’s writing that such themes as the triumph of the human spirit, or a weak man finding inner strength under extreme pressure do not seem trite or hackneyed. This book moved me.

Rochelle’s #CBR5 Review #26: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov


The Master and Margarita is biting satire beautifully written.  The Devil and his entourage turn Soviet Moscow upside down and inside out.  Lives are ruined, lives are saved.  Two women throw off their clothes and discover their power.  Jesus is tried and crucified.  There is a theatrical spectacular and a grand ball.  Shots are fired.  Buildings burn down.  Love wins. Continue reading

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #28: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley


The Spy Who Loved is the biography of Polish socialite Christine Skarbek who became British spy Christine Granville during World War II. While Christine’s life is fascinating in and of itself, this biography also reveals the difficult road of women who served in non-traditional roles during the war as well as highlighting Poland’s tragic history in the 20th century.

Mulley has clearly done an enormous amount of research on her subject, who certainly didn’t make it easy. Granville left very little behind, and the men who served with her and loved her made a pact not to reveal details of her life and to protect her memory after her death. Mulley tracked down sources written by contemporaries and was able to access personal archives as well as interview some who knew her. When her sources differ on the details of an event, Mulley goes to great pains to present the reader with all the conflicting stories before offering her own opinion as to what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether or not Ian Fleming and Christine were acquainted or involved with one another, and perhaps Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale is based on Christine. Or not. One of my criticisms of this book is that it gets bogged down in details that could have been relegated to a footnote. Another is that the writing is sometimes repetitive. As a result, the story can drag along.

The best chapters are those that deal with Christine in action. When the war broke out in Poland, she was in South Africa with her husband. They made their way to England and Christine was the first woman involved in British special operations (spy stuff). Her goal was to get back to Poland to fight the Nazis and win back Poland’s freedom. The missions she supported were thrilling to read about. It was also interesting to note that because Christine was in Poland on behalf of Britain, the Poles who supported the government-in-exile were suspicious of her and wouldn’t work with her. This led to frustrating complications for Christine that had an impact on her work throughout the war.

As the Nazis conquered Eastern Europe, Christine in her lover/lifelong friend Andrzej Kowerski managed to keep ahead, working their way through the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean before reaching Cairo. Honestly, this section of the book is somewhat tedious but it does show how Christine struggled to get placed on missions despite her exemplary and daring track record. Eventually, she wa
s sent to occupied France, where the story gets very interesting again. By all accounts, Christine had a magnetic personality, not just winning over many men as lovers, but also talking her way around the Gestapo and even charming their guard dogs. She was a fearless and courageous patriot, who seemed to thrive on danger and adventure.

Once the war was over, Christine’s treatment by the British was shameful. She struggled to get citizenship, even when being offered some of the highest service awards for her contribution to the war effort, and she never really found meaningful work that would make the most of her formidable talents. Her tragic death in 1952 came just as she was about to move from London back to Europe.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, and I think that Christine’s story is amazing and inspiring, those who would like to learn more about women’s roles in intelligence during WWII might find a more accessible read in Sarah Helm’s 2006 work A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Helm is a journalist and seems better able than historians or biographers to cut through the detail to put a readable story together (her book is longer than Mulley’s but seemed shorter to me). Plus, the women and men whose stories are featured in Helm’s book are some of the same people you meet in Mulley’s. Just not Christine.