Friday, 30 March 2018

REVIEW - THE TASTER BY V. S. ALEXANDER

Title: The Taster
Author: V..S. Alexander
Genre: General Fiction, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Kensington Publishing
Release Date: 30th January 2018

BLURB from Goodreads
Amid the turbulence of World War II, a young German woman finds a precarious haven closer to the source of danger than she ever imagined--one that will propel her through the extremes of privilege and terror under Hitler's dictatorship . . . 

In early 1943, Magda Ritter's parents send her to relatives in Bavaria, hoping to keep her safe from the Allied bombs strafing Berlin. Young German women are expected to do their duty--working for the Reich or marrying to produce strong, healthy children. After an interview with the civil service, Magda is assigned to the Berghof, Hitler's mountain retreat. Only after weeks of training does she learn her assignment: she will be one of several young women tasting the Fuhrer's food, offering herself in sacrifice to keep him from being poisoned.

Perched high in the Bavarian Alps, the Berghof seems worlds away from the realities of battle. Though terrified at first, Magda gradually becomes used to her dangerous occupation--though she knows better than to voice her misgivings about the war. But her love for a conspirator within the SS, and her growing awareness of the Reich's atrocities, draw Magda into a plot that will test her wits and loyalty in a quest for safety, freedom, and ultimately, vengeance.


PURCHASE LINKS

REVIEW
Having read The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander back in December 2016 and absolutely loved it, I had been keeping an eye out for more books by this author. When I saw The Taster I was instantly very interested, then when I read the blurb I knew I just had to read this book as soon as I could!

The cover features a woman dressed in a plain wine dress with a very neat white lacey collar. The female also has a brooch or badge at the neck of her dress. There is also lace featured on the cuffs of the long-sleeved dress. The female is holding a tea cup & saucer. The picture created on the cover could represent lots of different scenes from within the book. It could be the main character of Magda Ritter, or it could also represent Ursula Thalberg. 

The genres listed for this book are General Fiction and Historical Fiction which fit the book perfectly. I would also add the label Realistic Fiction and make sure to explain that this book is based on a true story too.

The book actually begins at the end with Magda Ritter explaining she is a childless old widow alone in a house full of memories. Magda describes the linden trees in spring and the blue lakes in summer that no longer bring her any joy. Then Magda reveals that she was one of fifteen women tasters that were employed to try/test Hitler's food to prevent him being poisoned by Allies, spies or any of his own men. Magda goes on to say after the war only her husband knew exactly what Magda did. But though she has kept her secrets for many years she feels now she has not much longer to live, she must reveal her hidden secrets. I loved the wording where Magda says she hopes people will not judge her as harshly as she has judged herself. How can anyone judge her badly for doing what she had to do to survive?

The book then steps back to a much younger Magda and tells the sequence of events that took place for Magda to become a taster for Hitler and the course of events that led to Magda being in the bunker the day Hitler died. 

At the beginning of the story, Magda Ritter is living with her parents Hermann & Lisa Ritter in Berlin. Hermann Ritter is quietly against Hitler, his Nazis' and the war. He works at a factory and due to an injury and his age, is thankfully too old to be conscripted and sent to war. His wife, Lisa Ritter, is more accepting and sympathetic to Hitler, his Nazis' and the war. Lisa thinks Hitler may be good for Germany and its people. In fact, she is concerned when her daughter does not join the Nazi party! Lisa brings in money for the family by doing sewing. Also living in the same building as the Ritter family is Frau Horst, an elderly lady who openly supports the Nazis with a swastika card in her window. Frau Horst prefers to gather her cognac and cigarettes before making her way down to the basement when the Allies are bombing. As Berlin is becoming increasingly difficult to live in with Allied strikes increasing, food and work becoming scarcer, Hermann Ritter insists his daughter Magda be sent to live with his brother Willy and his wife Reina. After initially attempting to reason and making her case to stay in Berlin, Magda finally gives in to her parents’ wishes and is sent to Berchtesgaden, to her father’s brother and his wife's home. Magda packs a small case, putting in a family photograph and the cherished stuffed monkey her father bought and gave her when she was a young child. There's an SS Officer checking everyone's papers before she is allowed onto the train to begin her long journey. When Magda boards the train she notices a young couple a few seats in front of her. They lean close together smoking and quietly talking to each other. Part way through the journey, the train is stopped. Ann SS Officer board the train and marches up to the couple, putting his gun to the male’s head. He remains this way until armed police arrive to remove the couple from the train. Magda is naturally in shock, why are the couple being removed from the train? They are in the middle of nowhere what is going to happen to the couple?
Once Magda arrives at Berchtesgaden train station she quickly searches the people milling around and standing between all the swastikas and flags. Once she locates her Aunt and Uncle she greets them with the expected Nazis salute, she notices that her Uncle Willy in his local Police uniform with a swastika on his arm, looks much happier to see her than her Aunt Reina does. Aunt Reina is wearing a cobalt blue dress that has a fastened collar with a diamond brooch in the shape of a swastika pinned above her heart. Her Aunt and Uncles Bavarian home is festooned with swastikas and even has a black and white portrait of the F├║hrer hanging over the fireplace! Aunt Reina is openly, fully supportive of Hitler, the Nazis and the war. Aunt Reina is convinced Hitler is going to win the war easily and is the best person to rule the country. In fact, it doesn't take long for Aunt Reina find fault with Magda, specifically that Magda is not a party member yet. Aunt Reina is a big fan of Hitler and everything he says and does. Reina quickly dictates that Magda must find a job or a husband, as she and her Uncle cannot afford to keep her for nothing. It is the fact that her Uncle Willy is part of the local Police force that helps Magda finally get an interview for a job. The job Magda is accepted for is that of being one of fifteen "Tasters" though she doesn't find out what her job is until she arrives at the Berghof. Magda once again finds herself packing her small case and taking her treasured stuffed monkey to live on site at Hitler’s mountain retreat, The Berghof. Magda reports to the head of the kitchen and cook Fraulein Schultz who explains she has been chosen by her and SS Officer Captain Karl Weber for a very important job, to taste the Fuhrer's food. Fraulein Schultz goes on to say that being a taster is an important honour, as well as a job, for Magda's body is being offered in sacrifice to the Reich in case the Fuhrer's food is poisoned. It is Fraulein Schultz that teaches Magda the individual, different poisons, how they smell, taste and work. Though Fraulein Schultz is a hard boss, she is a fair one and soon comes to like Magda and they become firm friends.

Magda does meet, and make some good friends, such as Ursula who introduces her to her own boyfriend Franz. It is via Franz and Ursula that Magda eventually becomes involved with SS Captain Karl Weber and ends up being drawn into a group of Germans with in Hitler’s work force who are plotting to try and bring Hitler and his regime down.

Magda is not only risks her life every time she tastes the Fuhrers food but she has to live 
under constant scrutiny and behave as the perfect citizen according to Hitler too. When Hitler takes an interest in her budding romance with Karl, and gives his blessing, he even gives Magda a special badge to wear when he takes it upon himself to make her part of the Nazi party. Then Hitler continues to keep track of their lives and is constantly pushing them to marry sooner rather than later and go on to have many healthy German babies! When they do plan their wedding Hitler not only attends their wedding with his companion Eva Braun but they are the witnesses to the marriage. Hitler gifts Karl and Magda special matching, engrave silver rings, to wear as wedding rings. The young couple are happy to be together and living in married quarters now but they still have to be very careful as they are still under scrutiny, anything they do, that is perceived as being wrong can and will be severely punished. The thing is it won't just be their necks on the line but that of their family too. Magda is aware one wrong step could result in her parents, or even her Aunt and Uncle being held responsible and them being punished or killed. Magda has to be extremely careful, yet ends up being very brave in the actions she does take. This way of punishing the nearest person to the one who has committed the offence is shown when in an attempt to both protect and distance Magda from being part of any plot against Hitler, Karl leaves her behind, whilst he goes on the run. Sadly, the Colonel, who has never particularly liked Magda refuses to believe she is innocent and had no knowledge of the plotting has her sent to Bromberg-ost. It is Magda's wedding ring gift that came directly from Hitler that saves her from abuse and the fate of living in, and perhaps dying in the Bromberg-ost concentration camp.

I immediately took to and came to both respect and be in awe of Magda Ritter, she is thrown into a job beyond her own control and is simply expected to put her life on the line for one of the most self-important, hated figures in history. Magda definitely views life and politics like her father Hermann and remembers her father’s advice of "Do what you must to survive" and has to choose to adhere to this advice on many occasions throughout the book. Magda endures a lot in this book, at one point another cook Otto takes a dislike to her and actually purposely gives her poisoned food to taste. Initially Hitler thinks this was a great idea that should be repeated regularly to assess his tasters and their abilities. It is much later in the book that unintentional actions taken by Magda mean that cook Otto falls seriously out of favour with Hitler.

I adored the relationships between Magda Ritter and SS Officer Karl, as well as the one between Ursula, a fellow taster and SS Officer Franz. Ursula and Franz had known each other since childhood and planned to eventually get married. Sadly, this is a plan not meant to come to fruition as a task carried out by Ursula has awful consequences.  

As much as I disliked the cook Otto, I grew to love cook, Fraulein Schultz as much as Magda did, she came to treat Magda as a good friend. So much so that when Magda has to choose between leaving Fraulein Schultz behind or escaping danger, it ends up being a very painful and difficult decision for Magda.

The funny thing is that two of the characters I found I really disliked were Lisa Ritter and Reina Ritter, though they not blood related, they are so alike and would probably have loved the honour to have had Magda's job as taster. They both can see, only the good in Hitler and his Nazi beliefs and doctrines. They both belittle those who would question Hitler and blindly believe he is the saviour of Germany right to the bitter end.

I ended up truly, adoring reading this book and I honestly became very fond of Magda. I think even more so when you realise it is based on a true story. The horrors she saw, was part of, and had to endure. Just when Magda thinks the war is over and safety is within grasp, she and those friends she has found are attacked and abused by their supposed "Russian saviours".

I have to admit it, I had a tear in my eye when Magda gets to go back to her Aunt & Uncles house when things are over, and Hitler is dead. She certainly see's a difference in her Aunt, gone are the swastika's and the portrait of the Fuhrer. There is another, bigger, surprise awaiting Magda at her Aunt & Uncles, but I don't want to spoil the surprise. I will just say have those tissues to hand.

I thought I would hate Hitler's companion Eva Braun but on occasion within this book you see a rather lonely woman who loves a man that is so busy with the war that he has very little time for her and continually puts off their wedding. Then on the other hand you think Eva Braun surely must have known what was going on with the concentration camps, which makes you wonder how could she love such a man? In the book you see Eva as a lonely figure so desperate for friends she tries to make friends with Hitler's staff. Of course, we know Eva does get her wish and gets to marry Hitler, and they then commit suicide together in his bunker with members of his staff on hand to assist where needed. Trusted members of staff then set fire to their bodies and bury their ashes as per the final instruction given to them by Hitler. 

This book did go into some great and interesting details of Hitler & his staffs final weeks and days hidden far underground. The book revealed how Hitler’s right-hand men also committed suicide alongside him in the bunker first making sure their young children were also dead. Even nearing the end of his power Hitler's staff were still diligently, blindly doing the crazy man's bidding. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hitler's final days through Magda's eyes. This view also leaves you with questions, was Magda really there alone with Hitler at the end. I don't doubt that she would be brave enough to stay as she wished "at the end" or even carried out the actions she says she did.

I truly enjoyed reading this book. I learnt more about what day to day life was like for those around Hitler. Also, I hadn't known that some of Hitler's own employees and people from his inner circle were plotting and sometimes attempting to kill him. So even those in a close vicinity to him knew he was losing the war, knew what he was trying achieve was wrong and knew he had to be stopped at all costs. Then there is the other side of the coin, of Hitler’s almost fatherly interest and matchmaking with his employees and their relationships, Also shown in this book is Hitler’s love of his dog Blondi, that has pups. Once again, Hitler goes on to show, what I guess, most people would simply say, is his pure evil side by killing the dog he professes to deeply love and care for and her pups so that when he commits suicide in his bunker no one else would get his beloved dog Blondi or her pups!

My immediate thoughts upon finishing this book were, Wow, an amazing read! 
This is the second book I have read by this author. This book is a work of fiction based within factual information gathered. I have to admit I grew really fond of Magda and could certainly empathise with her character, and understand how she reacted, and why she reacted to the increasing madness around her. This book is so brilliantly written, it makes you feel you are actually there, with a bird’s eye view of the horrific events through Magda's eyes.

I honestly found this book both a highly addictive read and an interesting, informative one too.  There are so many little details in this book, that encourage you to really visualise what is being portrayed in the book. What can I say? It truly is a time in history that evokes strong feelings and emotions from within me. I think the stories of the real people around Hitler should continue to be told. I am also adamant that what happened in and around the concentration camps that Hitler built etc should never, ever be forgotten.


Another great book by V.S. Alexander! I will most certainly be keeping my eyes and ears open for any other forthcoming books by this author.

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