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.

Summer Half

The Brandons

Pomfret Towers

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.

In the Month of the Midnight Sun

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Warlight

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

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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

Best of Ten!

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.

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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.

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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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