Review 2175: White Shadow

In this second book of Roy Jacobsen’s Barrøy trilogy, it is World War II and the Nazi’s have invaded Norway. The small island of Barrøy, the home of Ingrid’s family, has been evacuated. Ingrid has been living on the main island working in the canning factory, and her family is dispersed.

One day Ingrid defies the Germans and gets on a boat to row back to Barrøy. She goes into her family home without paying much attention to signs that someone has been in it, and it’s as if her brain refuses to see at first that there are dead bodies on the shore. A German ship carrying Russian prisoners has been bombed. She spends a day covering and burying bodies but eventually finds one man alive—a Russian, badly injured, up in the loft of the house.

Ingrid takes care of him but also must keep him safe from the Germans, who are observing her from the main island. She also is trying to bring the farm back into shape and fish to feed them.

The novel takes us to the end of the war, during which Ingrid has a difficult time.

Jacobsen tells this story with his usual pure, spare prose, a moving novel about human transcendence over great difficulty. I just love this series.

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Review 2136: The Secret Guests

A while back, I tried reading a mystery by Benjamin Black, a pen name for the writer John Banville. It made me interested enough to try another book by him.

During the Blitz, the British government decides to send the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, away for safe-keeping. Ireland is selected, presumably because it is neutral. Garda Detective Strafford, who is assigned to security, thinks the choice of Ireland is crazy, because there are still many people in the newly independent Ireland who hate the British, but the British involved don’t seem to know that. Celia Nashe, the MI5 agent assigned, just wants to break through the old boys club and get a decent mission.

So, Celia and the princesses are sent, otherwise unaccompanied, to join the household of the Duke of Edenmore with only Strafford for company, surrounded by a hidden detachment of incompetent Irish army men. Clonmillis Hall proves to be a castle—ramshackle, comfortless, cold, and poorly run.

No, this isn’t Cold Comfort Farm but a pretty good thriller, as the local IRA agent finds out who the girls are and notifies his contacts in Belfast. But first we see the discomfort of Nashe and Strafford, the homesickness and boredom of the girls.

Nothing much about this semi-literary thriller is predictable. The girls are lightly characterized—Elizabeth as reserved and priggish, Margaret as sly and mischievous, but still with sympathy. Although the novel changes point of view, it sticks mostly with Strafford. An interesting, engrossing read.

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Review 2126: The Flight Portfolio

As soon as I finished reading Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, I looked to see what else she had written, and that’s how I found The Flight Portfolio. This novel is based on true events with real historical characters except for Elliott Grant and some main invented characters.

It’s 1940, and American journalist Varian Fry is working in Marseille as the head of a charitable organization. Its mission is to help as many European artists, writers, and other intellectuals as it can to leave Europe and escape the Nazis. This mission is supposed to be legal but of course Fry has to use illegal means to evacuate people sought by the Nazis or by the Vichy government. The book begins with him trying to persuade the Chagalls to leave, but they think they are unassailable.

Into the chaos of the office work, including the eviction of the charity, comes a request for a meeting. It is from Varian’s old schoolmate at Harvard, in fact his ex-lover, Elliott Grant, who disappeared when Varian decided to pursue marriage and a normal life. Grant has come to ask Varian’s help in finding the son of his own lover, Professor Gregor Katznelson, a brilliant nuclear physicist who is somewhere in Europe trying to evade the Nazis.

While Varian works hard trying to get exit papers and arrange routes of escape, his relationship with Grant rekindles. He is forced to face his old decision and determine whether he wants to continue hiding his real self. His office faces searches and arrests, closures of escape routes, arrangements made only for clients to refuse to leave, blockages by government officials, and other obstacles.

The novel is riveting. Orringer is not only an excellent writer but a great story teller. I love it when I discover someone who is this good.

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Review 2125: N or M?

Agatha Christie said she liked Tommy and Tuppence best of her protagonists, so I decided to read them all in order. N or M? is the third. Unfortunately, they tend to be espionage novels, which are not her best even though Tommy and Tuppence are fun.

It’s 1940, and both Tommy and Tuppence are frustrated because no one wants them to help in the war effort. Tommy at 49 is considered too old for intelligence work. However, shortly after he makes another attempt, he’s called on by a Mr. Grant who has an independent operation for Tommy only.

England has become infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers in all levels of government, which is why Mr. Grant wants someone from the outside. He has information that either N or M—both German spies, one male and one female—is at the San Souci rooming house in Leamington. Tommy is to pretend to have got a boring job in Scotland then go to Leamington and check into the San Souci. He does so, only to find one of the guests is Tuppence, who has eavesdropped on his meeting with Mr. Grant. So, pretending they don’t know each other, the two begin investigating the household.

I thought that Tommy and Tuppence were a little dense about the identities of the spies. I knew who one was almost immediately. However, this was the usual romp with some adventure and risk to our hero.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2050: Summer Pudding

After Janet Brain’s employer’s office is bombed in the Blitz, she travels to the village of Worsingford where her mother and sister Sheila have made their new home. She has never been there before, but she makes a new friend on the train, Barbara Haines. Barbara’s reactions to some things she says should tell Janet that something is going on, but she doesn’t notice.

Janet arranged for her mother to move out of London into the country because her doctor urged her to make her mother get some rest without telling her she has a bad heart. Sheila was supposed to be doing the housework. But when she arrives at the cottage, she finds her mother more worn than ever and Sheila, beautiful and spoiled, doing absolutely nothing. Janet had planned to join the WAAFs but realizes she can’t leave her mother with Sheila.

Janet learns that Sheila agreed to teach Iris, the daughter of their neighbor and landlord, Donald Sheldon, months ago but has not kept her promise. So Janet goes over to Sheldon’s to offer her services. She is attracted to Donald, a widower, but finds him acting oddly when she tries to bargain for her pay. Donald also has a housekeeper, Gladys, who is jealous of him.

As Janet gets to know Donald, he alternates between seeming to care for her and seeming to disapprove of her even though she can’t figure out what she’s done. She doesn’t realize that Sheila has been telling lies.

Although the Furrowed Middlebrow books often involve some light, understated romance, they usually have other things going on as well. This is the first book I’ve read under this imprint that is a standard romance, with most of the action devoted to keeping the couple apart until the end. How good a romance is depends on how well you do this, and in this case, I think Scarlett (a pen name for Noel Streatfeild) doesn’t always handle it well. Characters over-react to other characters’ comments, for example. The situation isn’t too badly handled, though, and the book makes nice light reading. Straight romance novels are not usually my genre, though.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2030: Down Below

Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist artist who for years had an affair with the much-older Max Ernst. During World War II, Ernst kept being imprisoned as an enemy alien in France, and the resultant tribulations broke Carrington’s mental health. As she and some friends traveled to Spain to escape the German invasion, she became disassociated from reality. Down Below is her recollection of her state of mind and thoughts during her break from reality.

Reading this very short work is an odd experience, as Carrington’s delusions seem as surrealistic as any artwork. It also feels elliptical, reticent about the events that brought on her insanity and really about anything personal except her state of mind. It would have been almost impossible to understand without the background provided in the Introduction to my NYRB edition.

It’s pretty crazy. Unfortunately, this breakdown made her a heroine of Surrealism, which must have been personally difficult for her.

Just as a coincidence, shortly after I read this book, I read Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, about Varian Fry, the man who helped many writers and artists, including Ernst, I think, escape the Nazis. Review coming in a few months.

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Review 2026: Checkmate to Murder

In a bare studio on a foggy night during the Blitz, five people are occupied. An artist, Bruce Manaton, is sketching an actor, André Dalaunier, dressed as a cardinal. On the other end of the big room, two men, Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon, are playing chess. Rosanne Manaton, the artist’s sister, looks in occasionally from the kitchen and once steps outside to check the blackout.

A Special constable arrives at the door with a Canadian service man in tow. He claims that the old man in the house next door, Mr. Folliner, has been murdered and he caught the service man fleeing the scene. The soldier, Neil Folliner, says he went to visit his uncle and found him shot dead. The Special wants the people in the studio to guard Neil while he goes to call the police.

When Inspector Macdonald’s team begins investigating, they learn there is a rumor that the old man was a miser, although Mrs. Tubbs, his charwoman, had been bringing him food for fear he would starve. The house itself is absolutely bare, but there is an empty strongbox in the bedroom where the murder was committed.

Questioning a soldier who stood at the corner for a long time waiting for his girlfriend reveals that the only people who passed him on the street at the relevant time were Mrs. Tubbs, Neil Folliner, and the Special. It would seem that the people in the studio, all but Rosanne, alibi each other. But Inspector Macdonald doesn’t take anything for granted, and he is also interested in the studio’s previous tenants, who spread the rumor about the old man being a miser.

This mystery presents an interesting puzzle, although one not as complex as is sometimes found in Golden Age crime novels, for which I was thankful. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I think the solution isn’t a bit far-fetched. Also, it didn’t seem as if Lorac paid as much attention to characterization as she usually does, perhaps because there are quite a few characters. Still, I think her novels are some of the better ones in this series in general.

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Review 2011: Green for Danger

The details of an operating military hospital during World War II are meticulously recounted in Green for Danger. The novel begins with the postman, Higgins, delivering six letters about the writers’ postings to the hospital. The readers then learn that one of the six people will become a murderer.

The military hospital in the Kent countryside is busy one night, because an air raid in the nearby town has caused the hospital in town to send some civilians there. Among them is Higgins, the postman, who is also a member of the local rescue, most of whom have just been killed or injured.

Higgins’s femur is due to be set in surgery the next morning. It’s a relatively straightforward procedure that shouldn’t be dangerous, but as soon as he starts to go under the anesthetic, he dies. The operating team is shocked.

What seems to be an unusual but unsuspicious death from the anesthetic has Inspector Cockrill wondering. However, there seems to be no way that the canisters containing oxygen, which are black and white, could have been switched for the green carbon dioxide canisters, and no poisonous substances could be forced into a canister. If the death was murder, only the six people in the operating room could have done it.

That evening, Sister Bates, who is jealous of womanizing surgeon Gervase Eden, has a little snit during which she announces that she knows the death was a murder and she has evidence. Later, she is found dead in the surgery, stabbed and wearing a surgical gown and a mask.

This mystery is purposefully claustrophobic and quite suspenseful at times, although the explanations at the end are a bit long. I thought I knew the motive and the murderer all along, but I was fooled! I am happy to be seeing more and more women writers represented in this crime series.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1999: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Dark Palace

The Edith Trilogy Read-Along calls for the second book to be read during July. This second book, Dark Palace follows Edith and the fate of the League of Nations from 1931 through the end of World War II. Although most of it is set in Geneva, Edith also visits Australia and the United States.

This novel begins roughly one year after the close of Grand Days. Edith and Robert have been married about a year, but Edith feels she has misunderstood Robert’s character. For one thing, he is not really dedicated to the success of the League, and she sometimes finds him crass. She takes the opportunity of Ambrose Westwood’s return to Geneva and Robert’s departure to cover the Spanish Civil War to rekindle her unusual affair with Ambrose.

At the League, she is considered an expert on protocol but still does not have an official title. At the beginning of the novel, she and other League officers are excitedly preparing for the conference on disarmament they are hosting.

This novel, like many middle novels in a trilogy, has a less focused plot than the first. Edith, at one point, considers moving back to Australia and visits the newly founded Canberra to fish for a job. But Canberra barely exists, and her fellow Australians don’t seem impressed by her accomplishments. The novel skips in an episodic way through several events during the war.

There are times in the novel when Edith’s didacticism is really annoying. What the novel does have, however, is a deeply affecting conclusion.

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