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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Review 1503: The Battle Lost and Won

The second novel in Manning’s Levant Trilogy, The Battle Lost and Won begins one day after The Danger Tree ended. Simon Boulderstone continues his leave after finding out that his brother Hugo has been killed. He tags along with Harriet and her friends for an evening in Cairo, but when he hears that the big push is coming up, he returns to his unit hoping to be in on the action.

This book continues the pattern of its predecessor by alternating the points of view of Harriet and Simon. Simon becomes more closely involved in the second battle of El Alamein while Harriet becomes more frustrated with her husband Guy. As usual, Guy occupies all his time with projects and saves none for her, nor does he agree to anything she asks for. He is generous with anyone but her. Without any job or other occupation, she gets dragged into the love lives of her flatmates Angela and Edwina.

Like many middle novels, this one does not have its own climax but works its way to the final volume. Still, I am interested to see what happens to Guy and Harriet, and to some extent, Simon.

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Review 1498: The Danger Tree

The Danger Tree is the first volume of The Levant Trilogy, the second half of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War. It begins with the adventures of a new character, Simon Boulderstone, a subaltern in the army who has missed his transport to his unit in Egypt. During the course of a day in Cairo, he meets Harriet Pringle, who seems at first as though she is going to be a minor character.

However, the book alternates chapters between Simon’s experiences in the desert and Harriet and Guy Pringle’s in Cairo and Alexandria. The last book of the Balkan Trilogy left the Pringles in Cairo after they fled Athens. It’s a year later. When they arrived in Cairo, Guy found Colin Gracey, his nemesis from Athens, in charge of the Organization, for which Guy works. Gracey is neglectful of his position, a characteristic that Guy despises, and has gone off traveling, so Guy has trouble meeting with him to ask about a position. Gracey has again employed the unqualified Dubedat and Toby Lush while ignoring the very qualified Guy.

Guy stupidly then offends Gracey by writing a limerick about him, which he hears of. As a result, Guy is finally posted to an unimportant school in Alexandria nearer to the front, and Harriet is stuck in Cairo living in one room in a pension and working for the American embassy.

The focus of Harriet’s portion of the book is the uncertainty in Cairo, as the Europeans wait for an attack from Rommel. For Simon’s section, it is the confusion he finds at the front.

This book made an interesting start to the second trilogy. I’m happy to follow Guy and Harriet a while longer as they make their way through World War II.

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Review 1488: Akin

Noah Selvaggio is an octogenarian widower about to set forth on a trip to his birthplace of Nice when he is contacted by a social worker. His eleven-year-old great nephew Michael, whom he has never met, is in need of a temporary place to stay. Michael’s father, Noah’s nephew, has been dead for a while; his mother is in jail; and his grandmother, who was his guardian, has just died. Michaels’s other grandmother, Noah’s sister, has been dead for some years. Rosa, the social worker, asks that he take Michael while she tries to contact an aunt.

Noah tries to make his trip a reason not to take Michael, but Rosa is able to get Michael a passport and permission from Amber, his mother, to take him. So, Noah reluctantly agrees to take charge of Michael.

Once in Nice, Noah begins to try to track down the origins of some photos he thinks may have belonged to his mother, Margot. During World War II, his father went to the States, leaving Margot and Noah in Nice under Nazi occupation. Later, she sent Noah ahead, following in a year or two. The explanation has always been that she stayed to take care of her father, a famous photographer. But Noah thinks there is some mystery.

Although the pair have lots of arguments, Michael gets interested in helping Noah seek the truth about his mother.

I found this book a quick, interesting read, and a bit more touching than some of Donoghue’s other books. I was interested in the search for the truth and in the characters of the protagonists.

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Review 1457: The Alice Network

I would estimate that 90% of the recent historical novels I’ve read in the last two years—and I’ve read a lot of them—are dual timeframe novels. Although I have read some excellent ones (The Weight of Ink comes to mind), I’m beginning to feel that they often indicate laziness on the author’s part. Why write a carefully researched novel about one period when you can write two hastily researched ones?

In post-World War II England, Charlie is on her way to Switzerland to a clinic for unmarried pregnant women when she ditches her mother to try to search out what became of her cousin Rose during the war. This all sounds very well, but the flippant first-person narrative style undermines everything serious about this section, turning it into, well, a historical romance.

She finds Eve, whose name as a preparer was on the reports her father received about Rose. And what are the odds that Eve is going to handle a report that mentions a name important to both her and Rose’s fates? Not too likely, I’m guessing, but that’s what happens.

In any case, then we plunge into the story of Eve, a spy during World War I, and back and forth we go for a book that is about 100 pages longer than it should be and very repetitive.

Worse, some of the detail and conversations, especially in the spy section, seem unlikely. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces in benefit of the plot rather than evolving more organically. Characters are given traits to round them out, but these traits are just sort of thrown into the mix. For example, Charlie is supposedly a math whiz, but the most complicated thing she does is figure a tip or quote the Pythagorean Theorum (which I learned in 7th grade, and I think kids learn even earlier now). Neither is exactly high mathematics.

I know this book was very popular, and I think the subject matter is interesting, but I am not a fan of the execution of this novel. I wasn’t that drawn in by Manhattan Beach, but compared to this and some of the other World War II-based novels I’ve read lately, it was a masterpiece.

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Review 1421: Death Has Deep Roots

I usually give older crime novels more leeway than modern ones, because the genre has evolved. Some of the older novels concentrate on the puzzle to the detriment of character, for example, or even plausibility. Not so with Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert, published in 1951.

Gilbert, rather than having an all-knowing detective, has recurring characters in his novels, apparently. Although Goodreads lists this novel as Inspector Hazlerigg #5, he is only a minor character. Instead, the novel rests on the combined efforts of the Rumbolds, father and son solicitors; Macrae, the barrister; and Major McCann, a former soldier and pub owner.

Victoria Lamertine is charged with murdering Major Eric Thoseby, once her British contact when she was in the French Resistance, in his hotel room. The police case is built around the fact that she had been trying to contact him and that no one else could have committed the crime based on who was in the reception area of the hotel. The police think that Thoseby was the father of her child, who died just after the war, that being deserted by her lover was her motive.

Victoria claims that in fact Lieutenant Wells was the father and that Thoseby had been helping her search for him, as he was last seen when the Gestapo raided the farm near Angers where he was hiding. Victoria herself was taken in that raid.

Nap Rumbold thinks the links to the crime lie in France and the war, so he goes off to investigate. McCann investigates Lieutenant Wells in England, hoping to verify Vicky’s story about the parentage of her child. They only have a few days to find the facts while Macrae mounts his defense.

This novel is an unusual combination of legal and action thriller, Rumbold’s part providing the action. It has compelling characters, an interesting plot, and zips along nicely. I think it’s the best of the British Library Crime Classics I’ve read so far. I’ll be looking for more Michael Gilbert, whom I wasn’t familiar with before.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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