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 TranscriptionThings 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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Review 1336: The Great Fortune

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Great Fortune is the first book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy called Fortunes of War. I didn’t know quite what to think of it but am interested enough to continue.

Harriet and Guy Pringle are newlyweds on their way to Bucharest in the autumn of 1939. War is on the horizon, but Guy is in a reserved profession as a teacher at a university. It is his second year in Bucharest, and Harriet realizes very quickly that, while she is a stranger, Guy has already made a place for himself there among the English expatriates and diplomatic staff, the university staff, as well as other groups.

Harriet is not always a fan of his friends, particularly Sophie, a Rumanian student who would like Guy for herself, and Prince Yakimov, an English-born son of a Russian expatriate. Yakimov was once the companion of a wealthy woman and has been left destitute upon her death.

Although everyone is interested in the worsening news from Western Europe, they are also oddly detached. For example, Guy has been warmly welcomed into the home of the Druckers, he a Jewish banker whose son is Guy’s student. When the king’s mistress wants his oil rights, both Drucker and his son are arrested for pro-German sympathies, the son because the father’s Swiss bank accounts are in his name. Although the agriculturally rich Rumanians are supplying much of the German food, he is not released, nor do we hear much about his fate.

I thought Harriet supercilious and Guy totally oblivious of the results of his actions on others, particularly Harriet. Still, I found this period and setting interesting.

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Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Day 1300: Munich

Cover for MunichRobert Harris’s newest book, Munich, takes place during four days in September 1938, during which England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, Mussolini, and the President of France to try to avoid war over Czechoslavakia. Or at least Chamberlain was trying to prevent war. As he has done before, Harris manages to create suspense around an event the outcome of which we already know.

He does this by introducing two characters, friends from Oxford who are now diplomats. Hugh Legat is a junior secretary for the Prime Minister. Paul von Hartmann is in the German foreign ministry, but he is also a member of a group who would like to bring down Hitler. The group asks him to attempt to encourage a strong response from England on the Sudetenland issue by leaking secret German aspirations in Europe to England through his friendship with Hugh. The group believes that if war is declared, the German army will stop Hitler.

This mission is a dangerous one for Hartmann, who already has one SS officer on his tail. Meanwhile, Hugh in trying to be a liaison is continually stymied by orders from his jealous boss.

I felt a little more detached from this one than I usually do for Harris’s work. It depicts Chamberlain, though, as a much more determined and politically savvy man than he is believed to be now. I get the feeling that Harris, who states in the afterword that he has been fascinated by this meeting for years, wants to show Chamberlain in a more positive light than history generally affords him.

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