Book Review: The Last Innocent Hour by Margot Abbott.

the-last-innocent-hour-by-margot-abbottNo. of Pages: 599 pages (although in iBooks, it was shown as 1,251 pages)

Publisher, Date: Sand Hill Review Press, June 2017

Author: Margot Abbott

Setting: Berlin, Germany

SynopsisIt is 1946 and Berlin is a ruined city, the Nazis vanquished, but memories of the city in 1934 haunt Sally as she returns to investigate war crimes as an army intelligence officer. Her father was the American ambassador to the new Third Reich and Sally was too naïve to understand the corruption and depravity underneath the shiny surface of banners and marching men. Childhood summers at a Bavarian lake made her believe she knew Germany. 

Her job, which helps expiate her old guilt, is analyzing photographs; she is no longer innocent of the evil done by the Nazis. In the American sector offices, Sally finds friendship with the other members of her unit, especially with Tim Hastings. His easy, relaxed friendship is a balm to her frozen heart. She does fear he will despise her when he learns about her past, especially her marriage to Christian Mayr, an SS officer. 

He was a rising officer under the command of General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the dreaded secret police. Apparently supporting the young couple, Heydrich’s manipulations instead tore them apart, nearly taking Sally’s life, certainly shredding her soul. She does not know what happened to Christian. 

Sally studies a series of pictures documenting a wartime atrocity, a reprisal by the Nazis after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich. Stunned, Sally believes she can recognize the SS commander as her husband. It is logical that Mayr was sent to revenge his chief. 

But Christian was also Sally’s loyal childhood friend, and then her passionate husband. Sally believed in Christian, in their love and she believed that Berlin and Heydrich could not touch them. Now, in 1946, she understands love does not always triumph, but how could Christian have become the man in the photograph? And is he still alive?

There’s one thing you should know about me.

Make me watch a horror film, I’ll sit as far at the back of the cinema as possible with my eyes closed and my fingers shoved into my ears.

But give me a historical fiction novel on World War 2 and I’ll be glued to the book. I will stop to eat (though sleeping in questionable as I’ve sacrificed sleep before just for the sake of reading) until I’m done. Yup, that’s me. For some unknown reason, I’m able to read and digest the terror and destruction wrought upon mankind by the Nazis or the Japanese, the torture and suffering faced by the prisoners-of-war (POWs). But horror flicks have left me terrifed at night, unable to even use the toilet out of fear that there is something waiting to get me.

So here’s what I have today. The Last Innocent Hour by author Margot Abbott was, by far, the most emotional novel I’ve ever read during the World War 2 timeline. It was painful to read mostly because of Sally Jackson’s (the main female character) involvement with her childhood sweetheart, Christian Mayr. Now that wouldn’t have been a problem if he wasn’t drafted into Hitler’s world as an SS officer. Sally Jackson is the daughter of Lowell Jackson, an American ambassador in Berlin, and falsely believes that her position could protect her from the wily charms of the SS General Reinhard Heydrich, Christian’s boss.

All’s fair in love and war could have been the only tagline in Heydrich’s head. After all, he was the mastermind behind all the gross atrocities towards the Jews and he does have the last say of what Christian Mayr should or shouldn’t be doing. If Sally wanted nothing but love from Christian, then Heydrich would do anything to make sure it happened. Of course, having a German police general as your matchmaker is the last thing you’d want. But Sally just couldn’t stay away from it all, and it was her naivety and gullibility that led to her downfall.

I’ve taken a long break from reading anything to do with World War 2. Only because the books tend to mess with my mind. But I do kind of miss it, really. Like I mentioned above, it is strange how I can tolerate reading so much of this suffering, torture, pain and death surrounding this dreadful period. How dark and depressing it was back then. But I found it hard to put the book down.

One thing did cross my mind about The Last Innocent Hour, though. The total number of pages given in iBooks was 1,251 pages. However, on Goodreads, it was 599 pages. I’m not sure what’s up but 599 pages is nowhere near 1,251 pages. Although reaching page 599 or 600 would just mean I’m halfway through reading the book.

As I neared the end of the story, I realised how far I’ve come and it has been a turbulent, rollercoaster ride of emotions. It was the most painful story I’ve read in 2018. Dramatic, yes, I know it’s just a story but the author was pretty good! The way the story was written left me reeling. The book made me feel so much for Sally Jackson that after awhile I had to take a break from reading. Imagine sticking your head down into the Pensieve only to have all sorts of nasty things exploding in front of your eyes. I had been so sure that Sally and Christian would rise from their doom. Then I wasn’t so sure anymore.

It took me a little over four days to finish reading this. I found it hard to tear myself away and even if I did, just for awhile, I found myself being dragged back into the plot. Sally and Christian’s relationship was doomed from the start the moment the latter grew up into a fine young man. Sally had been too trusting to notice the cracks forming and even if she did, she couldn’t call it off for the sake of her own sanity. Instead, she got drawn in deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of lies and deception. At first, I thought she was being silly. I did tire of her stupidity and blindness to the SS General’s dirty tricks. But even I had begun to ask the same questions as Sally had in her head. Was Christian for real? Or was he just following the general’s orders? Eventually, I got as confused as Sally. Did he truly love her as he claimed to have?

The book was so enthralling and captivating. It hooked me in right from the start. Margot Abbott is a truly remarkable author. Her writing style made me feel as if I was another character in the book with everyone else. It made me feel the way Sally felt. Long after finishing the book, I coulnd’t determine if I was still in the book or came back to reality. I should have pinched myself.

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Jean-Benoit Aubery, My Favourite French Pirate!

I don’t often fall in love with villains, but when I do, I make sure they have class.

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And the French pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Frenchman’s Creek, Captain Jean-Benoit Aubery is one of them.

Captain Jean-Benoit Aubery is the master of the ship La Mouette and leader of the crew onboard the ship. A daredevil at heart, the French pirate enjoys taking risks when he goes on his raids. According to the man, the more dangerous the raids are, the more successful they will be! What about the time when he swooped down on Lord George Godolphin from the Merry Fortune and swiped his wig with the tip of his sword. And also the time when he boldly entered the Navron House to confront and taunt the twelve men seated at the dinner table, demanded that they hand over their jewels and strip themselves down to their undergarments while his men watched over them?

The Frenchman was not your typical pirate and not your regular seafaring rogue, despite the labels given to him by the people of Fowey and Helford in Cornwall. There were news reports on his raiding and plundering that he subjected the towns of Fowey and Helford to, but on the topic of rapes and murder that pirates are so famous for, there was hardly any of the sort. Which was a good thing too, as that would have been really dark and gloomy.

So when I read the chapter after Lady Dona St Columb was kidnapped by him and taken back to the ship, I had my fears. “Was she going to be raped, tortured and killed?” I wondered. “Would she be flayed alive or left to drown while they robbed her of her pride and dignity, clothes and jewellery?” I asked myself.

What greeted me next totally caught me by surprise.

For the pirate had engaged the bored and restless wife of Sir Harry in a conversation like no other. He was philosophical and had an entirely different take on life. His views on life were positive and absorbed with an open mind. He constantly questioned Dona on everything she said and had answers for every question on her mind. He spent his free time sketching birds, smoking his pipe, fishing, and gallivanting around town with Dona, who herself sought adventure and freedom to escape from a dull and dreary lifestyle. He spouts philosophy on life, teaches a lady how to do certain things, and can communicate better than your English professor are things I really didn’t expect a pirate to do!

Lady Dona St Columb is one lucky lady to meet a charming and plucky pirate, although her title only meant that she should be carrying herself better than sailing the high seas with a stranger. Though, I would be bored and restless too if I were in her shoes, and for Dona to escape into the British countryside with her restlessness and thirst for adventure as her only guides, well, if I could, I would have done the same. Dona eventually landed in remote Navron with her children Henrietta and James, and their nurse Prue. Not too soon after, she discovered her passionate self craving the love of a daring French pirate who is being hunted by all of Cornwall. And so, together, they embarked upon a quest rife with danger and glory, but one that will eventually leave Dona with an ultimatum: sacrifice her lover to certain death or risk her own life to save him.

I don’t have to tell you the choice she made. I’m sure you would already know.

So when Captain Jean-Benoit Aubery was captured by Lord Godolphin and his team of ragtag bumbling followers, I was far from being upset. I was amused, no less, because a pirate like him could not and would not allow himself to be held for long in a prison. No, he would have had thought of ways and means to escape, with the help of Dona and William, no doubt. And when he did escape, my heart jumped for joy, did a little merry jig and was relieved that he can now resume his piracy duties and sail the seven seas once again.

It was a good book. One that I certainly don’t mind reading it again someday.

“Just One More Chapter!” is the Reason Why I Don’t Get Enough Sleep.

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10:30 PM – Ah, now I can read a few pages before I call it a night.
11:30 PM – Still early… I can fit another chapter before I sleep.
12:30 AM – Oh crap, I’m still not done with this chapter yet.
01:30 AM – Nooo… I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!
02:30 AM – Just one more chapter… It’s a short chapter, I can do it.

Come 05:00 AM and you just decided to turn in for the night. Or day. Or dawn since the sun will be rising soon.

Does this sound familiar to you? It does, to me. And I’m guilty as charged for doing it all the time even though I know I shouldn’t be doing it. On weekdays, I struggle with my conscience to go to bed early. But on weekends, all sense of discipline and willpower fly out the bedroom window, especially when the book is sooo intriguing and each chapter ends on a high, making you want to continue reading to find out what happens next. Me and my “I’ll just read another chapter or two,” usually ends up with me sleeping at four or five in the morning with a finished book.

Not many books do this to me, though. Only certain books do and it depends wholly on who the authors are.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon and more recently, Daphne du Maurier have a knack for keeping me up in the wee hours of the morning.

Of Weird Dreams and Haunting Plots

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, with famous titles such as The Shadow of the WindThe Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven, had reason to delay my sleep. I enjoyed reading these books but they were notorious for keeping me up past midnight to finish. There was something very haunting, creepy and disturbing about them, which left me with weird dreams and nightmares as I tossed and turned in bed.

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In The Shadow of the Wind, a young boy goes on a quest through the labyrinthine secrets and shadows of post-war Barcelona in search of Julian Carax, a mysterious author whose book is a dangerous thing to own and impossible to forget.

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In The Angel’s Game, a young man makes a living by writing novels and spinning tales about the city’s underworld under a pseudonym. Until he discovers several letters and photographs in a locked room that hint at the mysterious death of the previous owner. These would haunt him later on when he makes a pact with a reclusive French editor that comes at a price.

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In The Prisoner of Heaven, the heroes of The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game must contend with a nemesis that threatens to destroy them. The terrifying events will launch them on a journey to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in search for the truth that will put into peril everything they love and ultimately transform their lives.

Of Philosophical Pirates and Mysterious Housekeepers

Daphne du Maurier, on the other hand, didn’t leave me jittery in the morning, probably because her books were more mysterious and intriguing than creepy and haunting. Titles like My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca, and Frenchman’s Creek have all kept me at the edge of my seat, leaving me wanting to know what happens in the next chapter.

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In My Cousin Rachel, the ending is left to the reader’s perceptions of whether Philip was truly innocent or whether Rachel had been the agent provocateur. I was wondering if Rachel was even his real cousin in the first place!

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In Rebecca, Mrs Danvers had been the star of the novel. So deliciously evil yet with her own reasons of why she had chosen to behave that way. Her mistress, Rebecca had been the original Mrs Maximillian until her questionable death.

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In Frenchman’s Creek, only du Maurier’s pirates are gentle and soft-spoken individuals with the uncanny ability to speak like an English professor and philosophize about life. To be fair, I have only just started reading Frenchman’s Creek but I’m already so drawn into the plot that I just want to continue reading and turning the pages.

Each book has its own reason for keeping up all night long, with the sudden appearances of characters from the past and present, demanding for answers and exacting revenge. And yet, I still couldn’t put them down. I carried on reading them, devouring each word, sentence, paragraph and chapter. Reading is like having a sinful dessert. It is good. It is delicious. But it can overwhelm you if you are not careful.

But it’s reading, you say! How can you keep a tight lid on how often you read? You bet your socks I can’t either!