SAAB CAN RULE THE HISTORICAL THRILLERS GENRE WITH HER DEBUT’S OPENING GAMBIT TO THE MOVE OF VERY LAST PAWN

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One of the most iconic strategy board games ever invented is Chess, its spanned cultural and physical divides while also been the basis of a hit stage musical (Chess) and the central theme of one of Netflix’s leading show’s (The Queen’s Gambit).  In primary school here in Ireland, nowadays and in the past, one of the many extra-curricular activities was a chess club. I wasn’t great and regularly walked home in a funk or on the verge of tears, having been soundly beaten by everyone I played, while my friends seemed to be able to easily win. But like most things, if you stick at it, you get an appreciation for it, which I have. It’s been years since I played, despite the ample availability of virtual chess games online. On top of that, I once owned a small computer chess game that supposedly recreated the moves of Grand Master Gary Kasparoff.

Never in my school days, or playing the computerized grand master, did I feel that my life depended on winning the game, unlike the central character in this month’s book review. It’s “The Last Checkmate” by Gabriella Saab and published by William Morrow ( www.harpercollins.com/collections/william-morrow ) on the 25th November.

When Maria Florkowska, a young polish resistance worker, is rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, she is accidentally separated from her family, who are subsequently all murdered on arrival. From then on Maria places all her faith in a small handmade pawn clasped in her hand, as she is an avid chess player. This soon comes to the attention of her brutal camp commandant Fritsch, who sets about making an exhibition of her and forcing her and her opponents to play for their lives. Maria resents Fritsch for the event which led to the separation from her family and along with the brutal beating he metes out to her on regular basis. So, she sets about trying to avenge the death of her family and the cold-blooded execution of a polish priest she had befriended and who had taken her under his wing. Will she succeed in getting Fritsch transferred or will she survive the war and track him down to play one final game with him?

There have been numerous books and films set within the barbed wire confines of Auschwitz, from a Boy in Striped Pyjamas, as well as the more recently published book about a tatooist in there, to the bloody reality depicted in print and on screen by Schindler’s list. But Gabriella Saab’s premise of having a young female chess player, engage in a twisted forerunner of Squid Game, is truly one of the most remarkable and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long while.

The final verse of Chris de Burgh’s song ‘Spanish Train’, stuck with me throughout this read. “…The lord and the devil are now playing chess. The devil still cheats and wins more souls, and as for the lord, well he keeps doing his best.”. Because for every one of the three hundred and eighty pages you live and breathe the feeling that good and evil are meeting over the chess boards, and are on tenterhooks, as you will this young heroine to keep going and win against all the odds, knowing that one false move, will lead to certain death for the pleasure of this sadistic monster. But also, Gabriella intertwines good souls within the story who help Maria, and it’s these other characters which help to make it more realistic, because, you know that in any dire situation there is always good trying to even the balance.

Gabriella Saab

Saabs’ characters are immersive and believable. While the story telling and the descriptions of life in war time Poland, followed by her internment in one of the most hellish places in history, never gets old. Despite how familiar the reader maybe with what occurred within its perimeter, I would go so far as to say that thanks to the numerous films and tv depictions of concentrations camps over the years, it is very easy for the readers imagination to get going while living and feeling every inch of this story.

This American author Gabriella Saab’s debut novel(www.gabriellasaab.com). She graduated from Mississippi State University with a Bachelor of Business Administration and Marketing, when not writing she works as a Barre instructor in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Her research for this book, took her to Auschwitz and Warsaw, to dig deeper into the experiences of those who lived there during the war.

If you are looking for a great historical read over the festive season or even to set you up for the long dark days of January, I would highly recommend that you get down to your local book shop, while observing all covid the restrictions and get a copy or just download it or order one online. Then boldly step into Saab’s tense and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Reviewed by: Adrian Murphy

This book review is part of a Random Things Blog Tour, to see what the other reviewers thought visit their blogs listed below. Then, if you get a copy, comeback and tell us what you thought. We’d really appreciate the feedback.

SCARROW’S THIRTY FOURTH BOOK SURGES OUT OF THE DARKNESS AHEAD OF ITS PEERS

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I’ve enjoyed the chance to review several novels set in war time for this blog. Some of the books have been romance stories such as the Dressmaker of Paris, by Georgia Kaufmann and While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart. Most have been thrillers such as Liberation Square , by Gareth Rubin  The American Agent, by Jacqueline Winspear,  and Ben Pastor’s The Horseman’s Song. War provides a great background to any story with ready-made elements of danger and villains. This months second book review is a detective thriller set in WW2, and whilst I may have initially thought this would re-tread of familiar territory, I was pleasantly surprised.The book is of Blackout by Simon Scarrow and published by Headline (www.headline.co.uk) on the 24th September .

Blackout is set in Berlin at the beginning of WW2, while Hitler is invading Poland and undertaking ‘peace’ negotiations with Britain and France. Every aspect of German life is run and ruled by the Nazi Party including the police force. Paranoia is intensified by the blackout which plunges the city into darkness every night. When a woman is murdered, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is under pressure to solve the case. Treated with suspicion by his superiors for failing to join the Nazi Party, Schenke walks a perilous line – for disloyalty is a death sentence. When a second victim is found and the investigation takes him closer to the sinister heart of the regime, Schenke realises the warring factions of the Reich are as dangerous as the killer.

What you quickly realise about this book, is that it has all the things you’d expect to find in a standard detective novel.  A smart, but isolated lead character, with a medical disability. Which makes him somewhat unique to the usual suspects in this genre , who are usually burdened with a mental health or addiction problem; there’s also a stalwart team of lower ranking staff; difficult superiors, and a love interest. Not forgetting the politics and a public who have biased views of certain other people . 

However, Scarrow’s knowledge of the workings of the Reich, the paranoia amongst the public, and the level of bullying, make this book stand out from its peers. He does also show the misery of the cold winter and deprivations faced  by the general public, many of whom had little appetite for another war. The persecution of the Jewish people of course come up and here we see the moral dilemma faced by Schenke.  While also seeing his frustration at wanting to follow the evidence but being thwarted by politics and those wielding the power.

This book is very technically correct but Scarrow has converted some of the German job titles in the Krippo  to their English counterpart to make it easier and more familiar for the reader. At heart this plot could have been set in any era including modern times but the war time background added layers of tension, intrigue and interest for the reader as well as leaving you feeling you had learned a little more of the social history of that period and place. It was interesting to hear of the hardships and fears faced by the German public, when we’re mainly aware of the Londoner’s in the Blitz etc. 

Schenke is a great new addition to a list of great cerebral detectives like Morse and Adam Dalgleish. while we are also introduced to a number of interesting chracters on his team, like the OCD Liebwitz, and the loyal Sergent Hauser.  I hope to see all develop further in future stories. And what of Katrin, Schenke’s girlfriend with her outspoken views? Will their romance go the course or cause more drama?

Simon Scarrow (Historiska Media)

This is english author Simon Scarrow’s (www.simonscarrow.co.uk) thirty fourth book, the majority are historical fiction, and Most of have been top of the Sunday Times bestseller lists. On leaving school he followed his love of history by becoming a teacher, before taking up writing full time. His Roman era Eagles of the Empire series sold over 4 million copies of the books in the UK alone and his work has been translated into 24 languages. He lives in Norfolk.

Blackout is highly recommended by The Library Door. It should appeal to fans of detective fiction and historical thrillers. It also joins the many crime stories set at Christmas so will make an ideal Christmas present for the crime fan in your circle.

Reviewed by: Georgina Murphy

This book review is part of a Random Things Blog Tour. To see what the other reviewers thought of the book, visit their blogs listed below. Then if you get a copy, comeback and tell us what you thought. We’d really appreciate the feedback.