Review 1696: V2

Just a note first: The description of V2 on Goodreads made me wonder if the publicist actually read the book. It describes one of the main characters, Kay Caton-Walsh, as an ex-actress when she is actually an ex-university student, and it says she becomes a spy. I always assume these descriptions come from the book jacket, but in this case the jacket is more truthful. I just happened to notice this, so I went over and looked at the description on Amazon, and it is the same as the one on Goodreads. Hmm.

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Kay Caton-Walsh, a WAAF, is having a liaison with her married lover, who is also the air commodore, when the area is hit by a Nazi V2 rocket. Her lover is dispatched to the hospital while she returns to work, disturbed by his refusal to let her accompany him to the hospital. A photo interpreter in Intelligence, she and her sector are attempting to locate the V2 launch site in the Netherlands. When the commodore treats her dismissively afterwards, she decides to volunteer for a position with a group of WAAFs in Belgium who will be trying to locate the launch sites by computing the rocket’s parabola.

Dr. Rudi Graf is a rocket engineer who has worked with Werner von Braun since he was 16. He has tried to concentrate on the mechanics of the rockets, but he is becoming disillusioned about the conduct of the war and sickened by the behavior of the Nazis. The novel alternately follows these two characters as they work on the same project from the two sides.

Although I am a devoted Harris fan, I don’t think this is one of his best. For one thing, it doesn’t build suspense as most of Harris’s books do. For another, I am dismayed by this trend I’ve noticed of depicting sympathetic German soldiers from World War II. Although I realize they were not all actively engaged in horrible acts, Graf really is. His dream of space flight has been converted into flinging rockets at civilians. Luckily, the program wasn’t that successful. Still, it killed hundreds of people on the British side and enslaved many more on the other side of the Channel.

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Review 1661: I Go by Sea, I Go by Land

When I made up my current Classics Club list, I reflected that I had never read a book by P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. So, I picked this one.

Sabrina is eleven years old when World War II begins worrying her parents. When a bomb comes close to their house in Sussex, her parents decide to send Sabrina and her younger brother James to America to stay with Aunt Harriet.

Sabrina keeps a diary, so she records her thoughts, badly spelled, on their journey by ship to Canada and by plane to New York, and then of their life in the United States. Along with them travels their parents’ friend Pel, a famous writer, and her baby Romulus.

This novel is funny and charming and ultimately touching, as the children experience new things, are homesick, and worry about the situation at home. It does have some slight political incorrectness, given that it was written in 1941. However, I liked it very much.

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Review 1655: Warlight

In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents enter their young teen children into boarding school and leave for a year in Singapore. Hating school, the two children run away and end up at home in the care of their parents’ friend and boarder, whom they call The Moth.

Their lives become chaotic. Their house is filled with eccentric people. Nathaniel and Rachel grow apart, Rachel going off on her own while Nathaniel skips school to help the mysterious man called The Darter engage in low-level criminal activities.

They never see their father again, and it becomes apparent that their mother is engaged in some sort of espionage, which eventually proves dangerous for them.

This moody novel is intricately plotted, so that its secrets are revealed slowly, like peeling an onion. As Nathaniel becomes a man, he begins to look into the truths behind his formative years. What really went on? What did he know but forget? What was he oblivious to? This novel is dark, enigmatic and deeply engaging. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1621: Bewildering Cares

Camilla Lacely has been asked by a friend to tell her more about her life in a letter, so she decides to keep a diary for a week. Aside from daily entries, though, this diary reads more like a first-person narrative.

Camilla is the wife of a vicar running a household on very little money, attempting to attend numerous meetings every day, and trying to help parishioners so they don’t all bother her husband with concerns as silly as what the railroad schedule is. Her cares range from how to afford a new hat to how to provide dinner for an unexpected visit by the archdeacon to how to be more attentive to her religious thoughts and prayers.

This novel is touching and amusing, although I occasionally found it bewildering. As an unreligious American from another time, I didn’t always understand the references or jokes. Because of its focus on religion, I had more difficulty with it than with other novels from this period.

The novel does have a plot. It concerns the furor of the village residents when the unbending, self-righteous curate gives a sermon preaching pacifism. Since this novel takes place in the early days of World War II and many villagers have relatives in the war, this sermon causes an uproar.

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Review 1612: Abigail

Gina is a fourteen-year-old girl who is adored by her father, General Vitaly, and has led a carefree life in Budapest. Then some changes occur. Her adored governess, Marcelle, must leave home because she is French and thus on the opposite side of World War II. Then, her father enters her into Matula, a school for girls in the provinces. He does this with no warning, and Gina is at a loss to understand why he has chosen a cheerless, strict Calvinist school.

Upon arrival, Gina is stripped of her possessions and given charmless garments to wear. Her hair is cut off. The other girls in her class seem friendly at first, but after a horrible first day, she has a melt-down and blurts out a class secret. After that, no one will speak to her.

One of the school traditions, at least among the girls, is that if you write a note asking for help and put it in the vase held by a statue named Abigail in the garden, she will help you. This tradition is one of the things Gina finds ridiculous in her first days, but after a while, she comes to believe that someone, perhaps one of the staff, probably is helping.

When Gina becomes so miserable at school that she can’t take it, she plots to run away. She is prevented by one of the teachers, König, whom she despises. Soon, her father comes to see her and tells her a secret, something that requires her to stay in the school. She realizes she must try to make peace with her classmates.

This may sound like a standard novel about life in school, but it is an adventure novel that actually becomes quite suspenseful. The identity of Abigail wasn’t very hard to guess. It is Gina who is oblivious to all the clues until the last sentence of the novel. There is certainly a cast to pick from, including Susanna, the beautiful and strict prefect; Mr. Kalmár, the handsome young teacher who is in love with her; and Gedeon Torma, the director, the source of the cheerlessness and strictness. This is also Mitsi Horn, a former student who is a legend at the school.

Despite knowing who Abigail was almost from minute one, I really enjoyed this novel. Gina, headstrong and oblivious, is still appealing, and the plot is an interesting one.

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Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1600: The Splendid and the Vile

Most of the books I’ve read by Erik Larson have juxtaposed two seemingly unrelated events and shown how they affected each other. In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson takes a different tack, deciding to write about Churchill during the Blitz. His book fairly closely follows Churchill from his first days as Prime Minister until the United States entered the war. It also follows some people closely connected with Churchill as well as others who kept diaries during the war, including some of the German high command. This is his juxtaposition, the British versus the Germans.

Because the book is based on diary entries as well as other sources and follows events almost day by day, it feels very personal and interesting. Aside from some regular people asked to keep diaries during the war, readers get to know John Colville, Churchill’s secretary; Mary Churchill, Churchill’s teenage daughter; as well as Göring and Goebbels. There are colorful characters on both sides, not least Churchill himself.

Although I have a general knowledge of this war, this book is more particular while still being absorbing and sometimes even entertaining.

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Review 1581: Somewhere in England

When I received a review copy of Somewhere in England from Furrowed Middlebrow, I realized that it was a sequel. So, I ordered the previous book, the delightful Nothing to Report, to read and review first.

To introduce the plot of Somewhere in England, I have to include a spoiler or two for the previous book. The novel begins with 18-year-old Pippa Johnson, who is about to take a position in a war hospital established in the family home of Mary Morrison, the main character of the previous book. In between novels, Mary Morrison married Kit Hungerford, who had purchased her family home. Now, Mary Hungerford is administering the hospital.

The first part of the novel has to do with Pippa meeting the hospital staff and villagers. It is more concerned with the social side of things than the war work as we meet familiar characters again. Elisabeth, who made her debut the summer of 1939 in the previous book, is a nurse whose fiancé has died, and she is rude to young Pippa. Lalage is friendly and will make a good nurse, but her sister Rosemary and mother Marcelle continue with their selfish ways. Most people, though, are occupied with some kind of war work.

The second part of the novel returns to the point of view of Mary, who is constantly dealing with difficult situations all the while worried for her husband overseas.

I enjoyed this novel, but it is hard to describe. It was fun to revisit the characters of Nothing to Report and see how they’re doing during the war. I think that as a sequel it stands well enough alone, but my enjoyment was enhanced by having read Nothing to Report first.

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Review 1538: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Rachel Malik’s investigation into the life of her grandmother has resulted in a gentle and touching story of friendship and love. It is an unusual one, too.

Rene Hargreaves leaves her difficult marriage to sign on as a land girl during World War II. She is assigned to work on a remote farm named Starlight owned by Elsie Boston. Elsie is a little peculiar and uncomfortable with strangers, but the two form a close friendship.

When a law is passed allowing the agricultural board to take charge of poorly run farms, Elsie’s greedy neighbors on the board use it to cheat her out of her farm, even after the examiner rates it “fair.” As a result, Elsie must leave the farm. Rene goes with her, and they become itinerant workers.

A promise Rene made to an old friend puts their lives in peril when Elsie is nearing old age and Rene is middle aged. Rene promised Bertha she would take care of her in old age, but it is Bertha who dies, leaving her difficult and senile husband Ernest with no place to go, so the two women take him in.

Although the two women live unremarkable lives for most of the novel, something about their story is compelling. Ultimately, it takes a turn I didn’t expect at all, despite its opening. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1514: The Sum of Things

The Sum of Things is the last book in Olivia Manning’s The Fortunes of War, the third volume of The Levant Trilogy. Like the last two volumes, the novel alternates point of view between the young soldier, Simon Boulderstone, and the young wife, Harriet Pringle. In this last volume, we also get Guy Pringle’s point of view.

At the end of the last book, Harriet was to set sail unwillingly on the Queen of Sparta to return home. Guy thought it would be best for her health, and Harriet only agreed because she was despairing of her marriage. However, at the last minute she did not embark, instead taking a transport to Syria with an acquaintance to visit Adrian Pratt.

She doesn’t know that the Queen of Sparta was torpedoed with only one passenger surviving. Back in Cairo, Guy believes her to be dead and starts to realize he neglected her.

Also at the end of the last book, Simon hit a mine. He finds himself in a hospital for paraplegics with the fear that he may be permanently paralyzed.

When Harriet reaches Syria, she finds Adrian Pratt gone, transferred to another post. Only then does she begin to wonder what she will do, as she has very little money.

This was a satisfying and effective conclusion to the six-volume series about the adventures of Guy and Harriet during the war. Although I started out not liking Harriet, the characters grew on me and I was always interested to see what would happen to them.

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