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.

Salt to the Sea

To Bed with Grand Music

Lilac Girls

Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

To Bed with Grand Music

Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

My Brilliant Career

Salt Creek

Review 1757: To Bed with Grand Music

To Bed with Grand Music opens with Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband Graham swearing perfect fidelity before his deployment to Cairo during World War II. Graham more honestly doesn’t promise that but says he won’t sleep with anyone that matters. At first, Deborah contents herself at home, but when, in her boredom, she begins snapping at her little son, Timmy, her mother suggests she get a job.

Her mother is thinking about a job nearby in Winchester, but Deborah makes arrangements to visit a friend in London, Madeleine, and see about a job there. Intending to go home on the evening train, she ends up getting drunk and spending the night with a man.

Shocked at herself, Deborah is determined to stay home, but she has a talent for convincing herself that what she wants to do is right, so it’s not too long before she turns down a job in Winchester only to take a lower-paying one in London. From there, she begins a career of connecting with men of increasingly higher rank.

Deborah is definitely an antihero. She starts out selfish and nervous and becomes deceitful, amoral, and avaricious as she goes on. Her faint motherly instincts become almost nonexistent. This is an insightful, sardonic character study of a particular type of woman.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

A Fugue in Time

Vanity Fair

Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

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Review 1709: The Redeemed

The third book of Pears’ West Country Trilogy and the book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, The Redeemed begins in 1916. Leo Sercombe, now about 16, joined the Royal Navy at the beginning of the war as a boy seaman. In a battle, his ship, the Queen Mary, is sunk, and he is one of only 20 crew members rescued.

His father’s former employer’s daughter Lottie begins training as a veterinarian with Mr. Jago. He believes that soon the veterinarian college will be opened to women and she will be the first graduate.

The novel works slowly toward the reunion of its two main characters. There is one incident where this reunion is delayed because of a misunderstanding. It’s the type of plot device used frequently in movies, where the problem could be solved in a few words, and I think using it was a bit lazy.

Although Pears continues with his spare, understated writing style that is so eloquent, I found after a while that his minute descriptions of work, whether it be birthing a foal or floating a sunken ship, were losing my attention. Finally, the long-awaited reunion seemed somewhat anticlimactic. Pears’ style is very detached, maybe too much so. Although I was always interested in what happened to the characters, I probably could have been more so. Of the trilogy, I think the first book was the strongest.

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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.

_______________________

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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