Review 2030: Down Below

Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist artist who for years had an affair with the much-older Max Ernst. During World War II, Ernst kept being imprisoned as an enemy alien in France, and the resultant tribulations broke Carrington’s mental health. As she and some friends traveled to Spain to escape the German invasion, she became disassociated from reality. Down Below is her recollection of her state of mind and thoughts during her break from reality.

Reading this very short work is an odd experience, as Carrington’s delusions seem as surrealistic as any artwork. It also feels elliptical, reticent about the events that brought on her insanity and really about anything personal except her state of mind. It would have been almost impossible to understand without the background provided in the Introduction to my NYRB edition.

It’s pretty crazy. Unfortunately, this breakdown made her a heroine of Surrealism, which must have been personally difficult for her.

Just as a coincidence, shortly after I read this book, I read Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, about Varian Fry, the man who helped many writers and artists, including Ernst, I think, escape the Nazis. Review coming in a few months.

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Review 2026: Checkmate to Murder

In a bare studio on a foggy night during the Blitz, five people are occupied. An artist, Bruce Manaton, is sketching an actor, André Dalaunier, dressed as a cardinal. On the other end of the big room, two men, Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon, are playing chess. Rosanne Manaton, the artist’s sister, looks in occasionally from the kitchen and once steps outside to check the blackout.

A Special constable arrives at the door with a Canadian service man in tow. He claims that the old man in the house next door, Mr. Folliner, has been murdered and he caught the service man fleeing the scene. The soldier, Neil Folliner, says he went to visit his uncle and found him shot dead. The Special wants the people in the studio to guard Neil while he goes to call the police.

When Inspector Macdonald’s team begins investigating, they learn there is a rumor that the old man was a miser, although Mrs. Tubbs, his charwoman, had been bringing him food for fear he would starve. The house itself is absolutely bare, but there is an empty strongbox in the bedroom where the murder was committed.

Questioning a soldier who stood at the corner for a long time waiting for his girlfriend reveals that the only people who passed him on the street at the relevant time were Mrs. Tubbs, Neil Folliner, and the Special. It would seem that the people in the studio, all but Rosanne, alibi each other. But Inspector Macdonald doesn’t take anything for granted, and he is also interested in the studio’s previous tenants, who spread the rumor about the old man being a miser.

This mystery presents an interesting puzzle, although one not as complex as is sometimes found in Golden Age crime novels, for which I was thankful. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I think the solution isn’t a bit far-fetched. Also, it didn’t seem as if Lorac paid as much attention to characterization as she usually does, perhaps because there are quite a few characters. Still, I think her novels are some of the better ones in this series in general.

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Review 2011: Green for Danger

The details of an operating military hospital during World War II are meticulously recounted in Green for Danger. The novel begins with the postman, Higgins, delivering six letters about the writers’ postings to the hospital. The readers then learn that one of the six people will become a murderer.

The military hospital in the Kent countryside is busy one night, because an air raid in the nearby town has caused the hospital in town to send some civilians there. Among them is Higgins, the postman, who is also a member of the local rescue, most of whom have just been killed or injured.

Higgins’s femur is due to be set in surgery the next morning. It’s a relatively straightforward procedure that shouldn’t be dangerous, but as soon as he starts to go under the anesthetic, he dies. The operating team is shocked.

What seems to be an unusual but unsuspicious death from the anesthetic has Inspector Cockrill wondering. However, there seems to be no way that the canisters containing oxygen, which are black and white, could have been switched for the green carbon dioxide canisters, and no poisonous substances could be forced into a canister. If the death was murder, only the six people in the operating room could have done it.

That evening, Sister Bates, who is jealous of womanizing surgeon Gervase Eden, has a little snit during which she announces that she knows the death was a murder and she has evidence. Later, she is found dead in the surgery, stabbed and wearing a surgical gown and a mask.

This mystery is purposefully claustrophobic and quite suspenseful at times, although the explanations at the end are a bit long. I thought I knew the motive and the murderer all along, but I was fooled! I am happy to be seeing more and more women writers represented in this crime series.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1999: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Dark Palace

The Edith Trilogy Read-Along calls for the second book to be read during July. This second book, Dark Palace follows Edith and the fate of the League of Nations from 1931 through the end of World War II. Although most of it is set in Geneva, Edith also visits Australia and the United States.

This novel begins roughly one year after the close of Grand Days. Edith and Robert have been married about a year, but Edith feels she has misunderstood Robert’s character. For one thing, he is not really dedicated to the success of the League, and she sometimes finds him crass. She takes the opportunity of Ambrose Westwood’s return to Geneva and Robert’s departure to cover the Spanish Civil War to rekindle her unusual affair with Ambrose.

At the League, she is considered an expert on protocol but still does not have an official title. At the beginning of the novel, she and other League officers are excitedly preparing for the conference on disarmament they are hosting.

This novel, like many middle novels in a trilogy, has a less focused plot than the first. Edith, at one point, considers moving back to Australia and visits the newly founded Canberra to fish for a job. But Canberra barely exists, and her fellow Australians don’t seem impressed by her accomplishments. The novel skips in an episodic way through several events during the war.

There are times in the novel when Edith’s didacticism is really annoying. What the novel does have, however, is a deeply affecting conclusion.

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Review 1897: The Metal Heart

On the Orkney Islands in 1942, a German U-boat attack on Scapa Flow leads the British to fortify the seaway’s defenses using Italian prisoners of war as labor. The Italians are located on the small island of Selkie Holm, one avoided by the islanders because of its evil reputation. However, twin young women, Con and Dot, also live there, having moved to a ruined bothy after events on Kirkwell that are not at first explained. Con is afraid, though, of Angus MacLeod.

When the Italians arrive, one falls overboard, and Dot dives in to save him. His name is Cesare, and he begins working in the camp commander’s office and trying to find ways to help the girls. However, he is stopped by the brutality of guard Angus MacLeod.

I liked Lea’s The Glass Woman, and I also like her apparent preference for placing novels in remote northern locations. However, I just wasn’t feeling it here. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces, not as if the story evolved naturally. I also felt a certain sense of manipulation. Although I was interested to find out why the girls’ parents had vanished, I wasn’t very interested in the love story. I read about half the book, then stopped.

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Review 1831: The Tolstoy Estate

Paul Bauer, an army surgeon during the World War II German invasion of Russia, finds himself stationed at Yasnaya Polyana, the ancestral estate of Leo Tolstoy. It is set up as a field hospital.

The men are startled to find a woman on the estate—Katerina Trubetzkaya, the Head Custodian. She and the estate workers refuse to leave. Bauer, who speaks a little Russian and is an admirer of Tolstoy, finds himself almost immediately falling in love with her.

This novel details the six weeks of the German army’s occupation of Yasnaya Polyana. Toward the middle, the book jumps ahead in the form of letters to tell what happened to the characters.

I enjoyed this novel. I thought that the descriptions of the field hospital and the characters’ activities seemed convincing. Particularly convincing seemed the descriptions of the cold. Conte does a good job of humanizing the German soldiers while still including some inflexible and dogmatic soldiers and some true Fascists. For example, the commander, Julius Metz, is slowly becoming unhinged from treatments of amphetimines.

Despite the novel being described in grandiose terms on the cover, I felt there was something slight about it. The love affair it was centered on wasn’t very convincing, for one thing, and I didn’t like how the letters broke the forward action of the plot and somehow seemed to trivialize the story. They certainly destroyed any suspense about whether the main characters would survive.

Since Tolstoy seems to be important to Conte, perhaps he could have found some way to sustain this importance. He says in the acknowledgements that both the Soviet and German soldiers were “acutely conscious of the site’s cultural, ideological, and even metaphysical significance,” but in the novel, of the Germans only Bauer and Metz, in his weird way, seem to be. I read this for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1828: #ThirkellBar! Northbridge Rectory

Cover for Northbridge Rectory

Northbridge Rectory is the tenth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and another reread for me, so I won’t repeat my review but simply provide the link to it. Instead I’ll comment on what I noticed this time through.

Everyone is much more actively involved in the war in this one, so it seems closer. Yet it seems far away, too, as we busy ourselves with the emotional lives of several characters.

I’m starting to notice Thirkell’s tropes, and one is for the infatuation of a young man for an older woman. In this case, it’s the young officer Mr. Holden for Mrs. Villars, the rector’s wife. Sometimes, these infatuations are handled sympathetically and in one case a few books ago, it was a mutual regard that added a bit of pathos to the plot. In this case, it is more comic, with Mrs. Villars not noticing at first or making herself respond in a practical way after feeling in herself a tendency to want to imitate the fragile flower that he thinks he worships. However, his comments about how tired she looks make her more and more irritated.

The other very touching story is the restrained love triangle of the two penniless scholars, the terrifying Miss Pemberton and the timid Mr. Downing, and the comfortable and warm Mrs. Turner. Miss Pemberton, who seems at first a grim bully with Mr. Downing under her thumb, turns out to have a much more sympathetic side.

I loved the depiction of Mrs. Turner’s nieces, Betty and “the other girl,” and their swains, Captain Topham and Mr. Grieves. And I don’t know how Thirkell does it, but even though Betty has as many verbal tics as the voluble Mrs. Spender, Betty seems delightful while Mrs. Spender is just plain irritating.

Not only am I finding these novels just as delightful as I go on, but I’m also finding them deeper (in a light way) and more touching. We get just a sentence about the (backwards spoiler for Cheerfulness Breaks In) survival of Lydia Merton’s husband at Dunkirk, since Thirkell with this book is dealing with other characters, but it cheered me right up.

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Review 1810: #ThirkellBar! Cheerfulness Breaks In

It’s been so long since I read Cheerfulness Breaks In that it wasn’t as I remembered. Still, it was funny and affecting. It is also the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire series to be set during the war.

The novel begins with the wedding of Rose Birkett, whose shenanigans occupied Summer Half, set three years earlier. Rose is still as selfish and stupid as she is beautiful, and her parents are terrified until the last minute that the wedding won’t go off. Thankfully, it does, due to the efforts of the groom, Lieutenant Fairweather. During the wedding, we encounter many of the characters who have appeared before in the series, particularly Lydia Keith.

No longer a bouncing 16-year-old, Lydia at 20 has stayed at home to help her father run his estate and to care for her mother, who is in poor health. As the novel begins in the summer of 1939, she is soon also involved in other activities related to the war. However, unlike her friends Geraldine and Octavia, she is too bound by her home situation to join the nursing profession.

Many of her friends, including her good friend Noel Merton, view her efforts with sympathy and concern. He notices how she has worked to become kinder and not quite so utterly frank, but appears not have noticed that she is in love with him.

This novel is full of the many activites that evolve from the war, but the amusing conversations and other events continue, as the full brunt of the war does not seem to have hit the community yet. Other couples get engaged, but in the romance department, the novel is mainly concerned with Lydia and Noel, each of whom thinks the gap in their ages is making the other uninterested.

I remembered Cheerfulness Breaks In as one of my favorite of this series, and although its plot is somewhat different than I remembered, it is lovely, funny, and touching. As an homage to Trollope’s series set in the same fictional county, I have been noticing more and more last names from the older series as I read along.

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Review 1797: The Historians

Like her previous two novels, Cecilia Ekbäck has set The Historians partially on the fictional Blackåsen Mountain, a stand-in for the Kirina Mine in far northern Sweden. This novel is set during World War II.

In Lapland, a Sami girl goes missing. She is not the only one. Near Blackåsen, a miner decides to find out what is going on in the secret mine, the one that is supposedly out of bounds. He hopes to find members of the Norwegian resistance there, so that he can help them against the Germans, Sweden being neutral. Later, he is found dead.

In Stockholm, Laura Dahlgren is approached by her best friend Britta’s Sami friend Andreas. He tells her Britta has disappeared, and he is worried. Britta and Laura were part of a group of special history students studying with Professor Lindahl at Uppsala University. After the others took up careers, Britta remained, working on her thesis. Laura thought Britta wanted to tell her something the last time she saw her, but she did not. Now not only is Britta missing, but so is her thesis.

Jens Regnell, the secretary of a government minister, is perplexed when the ministry archivist, Daniel Jonsson, asks about some phone calls to the Danish and Norwegian foreign ministers that were not logged. In fact, he doesn’t know how one could circumvent the logging. When he tries to find out about the calls, he is shut down and then Daniel is replaced, reported to be ill. Next thing he knows, Daniel is dead, a supposed suicide. Oh, and Jens receives in the mail a thesis by a student named Britta Hallberg.

This novel is genuinely thrilling, as Laura reconvenes the friends in her study group to find out what happened to Britta and what was in her thesis. I started out reading this novel when I had to take a break from reading another novel on my iPad because it needed a charge, but I ended up putting that one aside completely, even after my iPad charged, until I finished this one.

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Review 1787: The Girl from the Channel Islands

I selected this book mostly because of its setting. That it is based on a true story sounded intriguing, too.

About a hundred pages in, I began to think about not only why I wasn’t buying this novel but also why it it made me uncomfortable. Perhaps this is a politically incorrect statement these days, but for me to accept the idea of a Jewish girl having a romance with a German officer during World War II, I had to feel the love. But I wasn’t feeling it or reading about it. I was reading about sex, and I didn’t think a Jewish girl who knew what was going on in those times would risk everything for sex.

This is down to the author, I’m afraid, whose writing is merely workmanlike. I didn’t believe this story, true or not, so I stopped reading it.

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