Review 1414: Lilac Girls

I would like to say to some writers, If you are going to use multiple narrators (please don’t), they must have their own voices. If they don’t sound like different people, this technique doesn’t work. Unfortunately, either Martha Hall Kelly doesn’t know this or can’t do it. I’m not talking about expressed concerns or interests here but actual tone and mode of expression.

Lilac Girls reminds me very much of Salt to the Sea. If you remember my review of that book, you know that’s not a good thing. There’s the World War II setting, the alternating chapters with different narrators, one of whom is the evil Nazi. There is also the unconvincing narrative change, the poor characterization, and the mediocre writing.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite who works for the French Consulate and is involved in charities to help French children. In summer of 1939, there are already lots of refugees fleeing from France. We guess she’s going to become involved in that; however, the first hundred pages of the novel concern her growing relationship with Paul Rodierre, an actor whose wife is trapped in France. Not very interesting, since Hall doesn’t get us to care about Caroline or Paul.

Kasia Kuzmerick is a Polish teenager living in Lublin. When the Nazi attack, she witnesses their planes firing on camps of refugees. Later on, she begins running errands for the resistance.

Herta Oberhauser is a young doctor who has bought the Nazi vision despite having difficulty getting a job because women are expected to be wives and mothers. She finally gets a job working at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women.

Not only did I think the characterization was poor, I felt the behavior of characters was at times unlikely. For example, Kasia is old enough to understand that her mother is being forced to have an affair with a Nazi, yet she makes a dangerous public scene with her about it. Herta is an ambitious doctor who cannot find a job because she is a woman, yet she buys the ideals of the Nazi party that is keeping her down.

I admit I did not finish this novel, which was taking a long time to get anywhere (another problem with such frequent switches in narration). I read about a quarter of the book then decided to quit wasting my time. The story of Ravensbrück is important, but this writer is not up to the task.

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Review 1393: Friends and Heroes

Cover of Fortunes of WarAt the end of the previous book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Harriet Pringle flew out of a besieged Bucharest without knowing whether Guy would be able to follow. She ends up in Athens, and the first person she meets is Prince Yakimov. Although he betrayed the Pringles to the Germans through his foolishness, Harriet is happy to see a friendly face.

Guy does arrive in Athens in the hope of getting a teaching job at the Academy. He finds Duderat and Toby Lush ensconced there as teachers. Although he employed them in Bucharest despite their lack of credentials, they do not repay his kindness with assistance. Instead, they lie to the director about him to prevent him getting a position. The director will not allow the Pringles to live at the Academy, so they find themselves with only a room to stay in and no money.

Even after they manage to establish themselves, Harriet feels alone. She understands that Guy considers her part of himself, but he therefore expends himself in work and helping others and hardly thinks of her. Out of loneliness, she finds herself attracted to a young soldier.

I didn’t like the turn the plot took with the soldier, whom I thought tiresome, but I have found this series more and more interesting. Although Friends and Heroes is the third book in the Balkan Trilogy, it ends with another evacuation and feels incomplete, so I feel compelled to read the second trilogy in the series Fortunes of War, the Levant Trilogy.

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Review 1390: End Games in Bordeaux

I had already planned to post this review today, but last week I noticed that September 1 was also the beginning of Readers Imbibing Peril, where participating readers read mysteries, horror, suspense, and so on between September 1 and October 31. I usually read a fair number of books in those categories anyway, not to mention trying to read something suitable for Halloween. So, here goes. Let me count this book as my first entry!

* * *

Those who select the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize have an annoying tendency to choose books from the middle or end of a series. I read five long Matthew Shardlake novels just to read Heartstone for my project and then felt it wasn’t necessary to have read the other books. I didn’t realize that The Quality of Mercy was the second of two novels until I began reading it, but I found that it was easy enough to figure out what I had missed.

So, when it came time to read End Games in Bordeaux, I reasoned that since it was a mystery, it probably wasn’t necessary to read the preceding three books. That turned out to be a mistake. Not only does the novel check in periodically with a plethora of characters whose relationship to the main character is not explained, but an understanding of the plot relies heavily on the cases covered in the previous books. So, I was fairly well confused the entire time I was reading the book.

World War II is winding down. There are rumors that an invasion by the Allies will come soon. Superintendent Lannes is suspended from duty by order of the Germans for reasons that are not clear.

Count St.-Hilaire asks him to find a young girl who has run off with a ne’er-do-well, Aurélien Mabire. When Lannes finds Mabire, however, the girl isn’t with him. Mabire is, in fact, gay, and he lured the girl away with a promise to meet her father, long estranged from the family. Mabire was working at the bidding of Labiche, a crooked advocate whom Lannes despises.

The situation begins to deteriorate as people begin changing sides preparatory to the end of the war. Lannes finds himself being threatened and rumors being spread about him.

I had to wonder if I would have liked the book better if I had understood who some of the characters were and what the background was. I’m not sure I would have. The novel is narrated in terse little blocks of text while we skip from one situation to another, which doesn’t give me confidence that I would have found it much more understandable. Perhaps Massie was relying on readers’ knowledge of the other works in the series, but novels need to stand on their own. In the case of a series, therefore, some reiteration is necessary. Furthermore, the writing style makes me not want to go back and read the books in the series that I missed. One quote on the cover says the characters are evoked vividly. Well, maybe they are if you’ve read all the books. I didn’t find that to be the case.

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Review 1384: The Spoilt City

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Spoilt City is the second book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. I was confused about why this series had two series names until I read recently that this trilogy along with her Levant Trilogy are called The Fortunes of War.

The war, of course, is World War II. The Spoilt City begins during the summer of 1940 in Bucharest. When newly married Harriet Pringle arrived in the city less than a year before, it was opulent in its wealth, and Romania being agriculturally rich, loaded with good food. Although the country is neutral, it has been sending most of its food to Germany, and now it is becoming difficult to find anything good to eat.

King Carol has been trying to maneuver between threats from Germany and Russia. Romania has been an English ally, but when Russia is rumored to be ready to invade, Carol throws his lot in with the Germans. They immediately cede large portions of Transylvania to Hungary. The Iron Guard, an outlawed group of Fascists, reappear in the streets, and Germans begin arriving. People begin calling for Carol’s abdication. The English, who were formerly welcome, begin to feel threatened.

Harriet, who has married on three weeks’ acquaintance, is beginning to understand her husband, Guy. While he is popular with everyone and has an open, gregarious nature, he glosses over difficulties that she must tend to. He has offered the impoverished Prince Yakimov a place to stay while he acted in Guy’s play. When the play is over, Harriet doesn’t know how to get rid of him. Later, Yakimov repays this hospitality with a foolish betrayal.

The impending Drucker trial is all anyone talks about. Drucker, a wealthy Jew, is facing trumped-up charges after refusing to hand over his oil leases to the King’s mistress. Much of the family money is in the name of his son, Sasha, who has been forced into the army. Sasha, formerly Guy’s pupil, deserts and comes to Guy for help. Guy and Harriet hide him in a room on the roof, another danger to them.

Now that things have got going, I found this second book a lot more interesting than the first. I didn’t really like Harriet in the first book but found her much more likable in the second. With such a naïve and impractical husband, she is often faced with having to take care of unpleasantness. I am looking forward to the third novel and will probably also read the Levant Trilogy.

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Review 1381: Miss Ranskill Comes Home

When I read that Miss Ranskill Comes Home is about a woman stranded on a desert island, I thought of some romantic comedies from the 50’s. But the novel is more serious than that. It’s about a woman struggling to find her place in a world completely changed.

The novel opens with Miss Ranskill burying the Carpenter, which is what she called the man who was her companion on the desert island where they both have been stranded since falling overboard. The Carpenter died, but he left her the boat he’d been building. When she casts off, hoping to encounter a ship, she occupies herself with the stories they used to tell each other about going home.

Miss Ranskill is picked up by a ship, but World War II has begun since she was lost. She doesn’t understand how the world works or have any papers. She gets off to a bad start after she arrives in England when she leaves her escort out of embarrassment. Even when she returns to her sister, she is made to feel like an encumbrance. Having lived literally stripped to the essentials, she doesn’t feel much sympathy for wartime bureaucracy or the pleasure some seem to take in their deprivations.

This novel is an unusual one. At times I didn’t buy what happened to Miss Ranskill after she returned home, particularly her reception. I also got irritated with her seeming determination to ignore the rules of wartime, even if some of them were silly. Still, this is a thoughtful examination of some of the attitudes of that time and ultimately a touching story.

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Review 1379: The Nightingale

I wasn’t impressed by the only other Kristin Hannah novel I read, but my brother recommended The Nightingale so strongly that I decided to give her another chance. I know I’m probably in the minority.

The novel begins with an old lady living in Oregon in 1995 who is moving into a retirement home and is sorting through old papers with her son. Her son finds the identity papers of Juliette Gervaise, a person he’s never heard of. This launches most of the rest of the novel, set in France during World War II.

The two Rossignol sisters are very different women. Vianne is a mother, wife, and schoolteacher. When the Nazis arrive in the village, she is careful to follow orders and try to stay out of trouble. Isabella, however, is a rebellious teenager who runs away from school and immediately begins distributing fliers for the Resistance.

As Vianne fights to survive and protect her daughter, Sophie, she eventually finds that she can’t always follow the rules. In the meantime, Isabella’s involvement with the Resistance becomes more dangerous. Obviously, one of hooks of the novel is to find out which sister becomes the little old lady in Oregon.

It took quite a while, but I did become involved in this novel. It’s an interesting story, based on a real one. I still, however, consider the writing mediocre and trite and the characterization flat except for a few characters. I found the novel affecting, though.

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Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionBest of Ten!
Things are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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