Archives for World War Two

Book review: The Gustav Sonata

This novel is a remedy. If you have been reading too many fast-moving, cliff-hanging, emotionally-wringing new novels which don’t give you time to breathe, now sink into this. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a sensitive portrayal of the friendship of two boys who meet at kindergarten and form a lifelong on-off friendship. Gustav and Anton are the products of their parents and upbringing, and the baggage they inherit. All of this is complicated by post-war Switzerland. The war seems, to them, irrelevant, but in fact it frames their whole lives. Gustav lives with his widowed mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. Money is tight and Emilie juggles jobs to manage. As a lonely toddler who misses a father he barely remembers, Gustav longs for more warmth from an emotionally-distant mother. She encourages him to ‘master himself’, his behaviour, his emotions, his ambitions. He accompanies her to her cleaning job at the local church, he helps by cleaning rubbish from beneath the grating; instead of throwing it away, he keeps it carefully in a tin. The only person with whom he shares these treasures is Anton, his first real friend. Visiting Anton’s home and meeting his parents,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Day

Day, the title of this novel by AL Kennedy, does not refer to a period of twenty-four hours, but to Alfred Francis Day. Alfie. Rear gunner in a Lancaster in World War Two and now extra on the set of a war film. Past and present are mingled together as he starts to remember things he would rather forget. The passages in the bomber are electrifying, in their detail and understanding. The cold, the smell, the fear, how the professionalism of their training kicks in when the action starts. It is totally believable.. The timelines are mixed here as Alfred’s memories are inter-mingled: when Alfred was a member of the bomber crew; his time in a prisoner-of-war camp; and as a film extra in 1949. Where the novel is not so clear, for me, is the intermingling of these three timelines, though after fifty pages everything started to clarify. If you find this, persist and everything will fall into place. Through Alfred’s memories and his conversations with Ivor, his post-war employer at a bookshop, his bomber crew and the other film extras, we start to piece together the story of his life. It is particularly poignant when he falls in
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Slaves of Solitude

Patrick Hamilton is a new author for me. The Slaves of Solitude, published in 1947, is a novel about wartime in which war is deep background. The setting is Thames Lockden, a small town in the Home Counties, which Hamilton based on Henley-upon-Thames. It tells the story of Miss Roach – Enid, though hardly anyone knows this is her first name – and her life at a boarding house, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. This is a war novel with a difference, focussing on the people at home, not fighting but getting on with their lives in a world turned upside down, managing on a day-to-day basis, life is dreary and bare. Miss Roach, former schoolmistress, is single, 39, and fiercely independent. She has been bombed out of her London flat and has fled from the bombing. Life is dark. ‘The earth was muffled from the stars; the river and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other. This was war late in 1943.’ Hamilton is a wonderful observer of human behaviour, he shows the nasty politeness between the residents at The Rosamund Tea Rooms, the bullying, the toadying, the power struggles and
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Garden of Evening Mists

This is another enchanting novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng. The Garden of Evening Mists focuses on the post-Second World War period in Malaya. The Japanese occupiers have gone and local communist fighters are challenging British rule. In the hills of the Cameron Highlands, next to a tea plantation, lies a delicate Japanese garden created by Nakamura Aritomo, a man who was once gardener to the Emperor of Japan. Decades later when Yun Ling Teoh retires as a Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur, she re-visits the garden at Yugiri. This is her story. In the 1950s Emergency, the people who lived in Malaya’s hill villages grew to fear the communists. Homes were raided and destroyed, people killed, women raped. This is the setting in which Yun Ling first visits Yugiri to ask Aritomo to build a traditional Japanese garden in memory of her sister Yun Hong. This is a novel about memory, things remembered and things denied, and about loyalty. Yun Ling’s loyalty to her sister who was killed in a Japanese labour camp and her guilt that she could have done more to save her, and loyalty to Arimoto who she loved and thought she knew. Judge
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Shelter

This book is full of trees. The Forest of Dean to be exact. Shelter by Sarah Franklin is the story of two outsiders who find themselves in the forest during World War Two. As they struggle to survive, to learn about their surroundings, how to get by from day to day, each finds a way to live the rest of their lives. Early in 1944 in Coventry, Connie Granger’s life is changed in the course of one night. Escaping the bombing, city-girl Connie takes a job with the Women’s Timber Corps. Unable to follow her dreams, she resents the change of direction.  Sent to the Forest of Dean for her training, she turns out to be so good the manager keeps her on. Meanwhile, in the forest, a prisoner-of-war camp is built for Italian soldiers captured during fighting in Africa. Neither prisoner Seppe, nor Connie, know one tree from another but together they learn to fell trees and work timber. And they get to know each other. The themes of nature, change and new birth are strong throughout Shelter, symbolised not just by the trees but by the growth of Joe, Connie’s baby, and the increasingly fluency of Seppe’s English.
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Gift of Rain

If you are searching for another world in which to immerse yourself, then this novel will fit the requirement. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng will suit anyone interested in the Malay Peninsula and its history in World War Two. It is at times tender, brutal, harsh and uplifting. It is a story of love, family, war, of defeat and acceptance. The story opens as Philip Hutton, an elderly man living in a stately house on Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaysia. To his door comes an elderly, frail Japanese woman. They have never met before, but know one person who made an impact on their lives. Endo-san, a Japanese man, once lived on a tiny island near Istana, the Hutton family home. The Gift of Rain is the story of the relationship between Endo-san, a master, sensei, of aikijutsu, and his teenage pupil Philip immediately preceding the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 and the following years of occupation. There are many subtle layers to this tale which left me moved and thirsty for more facts about this period of history. It poses many difficult questions. Like the best novels dealing with war, it
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Categories: Book Love.

#Book review ‘The Distant Hours’ by Kate Morton #historical #romance #WW2

If ever there was a novel in which a house plays the role of a character, this is it. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton is told in two strands, World War Two and the Nineties, involving the three Blythe sisters in Kent at Milderhurst Castle and a South London mother and daughter, Meredith and Edie. They all are connected by the war, the house, and the truth of what really happened when Juniper Blythe was abandoned by her lover in 1941. This is a brick of a book [678 pages], like Morton’s other novels. A little too long for me, the story meanders at times through past and present until it works towards the final mystery. What a mystery, an ingenious storyline and an unpredictable final twist. The story starts when a letter arrives for Edie’s mother, a letter lost for decades, a letter dating from wartime when Meredith was a schoolgirl evacuated to Kent. Edie is fascinated by her mother’s history, but her mother does not talk of it. They are not close, and Edie feels unable to press for information. So she sets off to investigate on her own. At the centre of the story is the house,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Another You

Novels rooted in a particular area where the place and scenery come alive off the page are favourites of mine. Studland Bay in Dorset, England is a beautiful part of the country, a dramatic coastline which is an ideal for a dramatic story. In Another You, Jane Cable uses the place to great effect. Key action scenes take place at the looming chalk cliffs, the Old Harry rocks, the sand dunes and heath. The time in which the story is set is cleverly chosen too, the sixtieth anniversary of preparations for the D-Day landings, preparations which took place along the south coast of England. It is a time full of memories, grief, regret and gratitude. In this place and time, Cable sets her story. Marie is chef at The Smugglers, the pub she owns with her husband Stephen, from whom she is separated. Jude their son, a student, lives at the pub and helps out. Despite its popularity, the pub’s finances are not good and there is not enough cash to pay suppliers. Marie doesn’t understand what is happening and is stressed by this and having to deal with her difficult husband. This human story plays out alongside rehearsals for
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Sue Moorcroft

Today I’m delighted to welcome contemporary women’s novelist Sue Moorcroft. “I wish I still had my dad’s copy of A Town Like Alice. It was one of those Reader’s Digest leather-bound books, bright red with gold. Sadly, I lent it to someone. A Town Like Alice was the first adult book I read. I was nine. I watched the film one afternoon with Dad and he told me he had the book. As a bookworm, when the film finished the obvious thing to do was locate it in the bookcase and carry it off to my room. If I close my eyes I can still see the red ribbon to mark reading progress and the dark blue and white pattern on the inner cover. In A Town Like Alice Nevil Shute taught me a lot about storytelling. He showed me that a story arc doesn’t have to contain a mystery (Famous Five) or a school (Malory Towers) and can be set against the ugliness of war and yet contain one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. That love can triumph over seemingly impossible odds, even over man’s inhumanity to man. It taught me a lot about characters having
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: At Mrs Lippincote’s

Oh the delight at discovering a new author. I can’t remember where I stumbled across Elizabeth Taylor, but she seems to be the “novelist’s novelist” with fans ranging from Valerie Martin and Kingsley Amis to Sarah Waters, Jilly Cooper and Elizabeth Jane Howard. At Mrs Lippincote’s is Taylor’s debut novel, first published in 1945. It is a minutely observed account of a family in wartime. Roddy is posted away from London and so rents a house from a widow, Mrs Lippincote. The landlady remains ever-present in the house through her family photographs on the mantelpiece and her possessions in the cupboards. Julia’s life has a transitory feel, she is where she is because of her husband and war, war which is ever-present on every page, and she is curious about the life of the Lippincote family. This is not a war novel about bombs and sirens, it is the snapshot of a normal family living in abnormal times. The Davenants live at Mrs Lippincote’s with their sickly, seven-year-old book-obsessed son Oliver, and Roddy’s cousin Eleanor. Eleanor, in love with her cousin, finds new friends via a fellow schoolteacher. Julia becomes close to the Wing Commander, Roddy’s boss, while Oliver makes
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: A Hero in France

France 1941, British bombers fly every night to Germany, many aircraft don’t make it back home. The aircrew parachuting into Occupied France must somehow find their way home in order to fight again. A Hero in France by Alan Furst is a story of that individual battle within the wider war, seen from different sides by two ordinary men. This is the beginning of the French Resistance. The man known as Mathieu – we don’t know his real name or identity until the very end of the book, this is the name by which he is known to his Resistance cell – escorts airmen along the north-south escape lines into Vichy France and onwards to Spain. Old clothes are sourced at jumble sales, innocent-looking shops serve as message drops, and a schoolgirl delivers messages by bicycle. In the beginning it was successful and relatively simple, but now the German command in Paris realizes there is a big problem. Word is getting around about the Resistance and people want to join, but how does Mathieu know who is genuine and who is a German spy? In Hamburg, Otto Broehm, senior inspector of the police department, is transferred to the Kommandantur in
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Categories: Book Love.

A poem to read in the bath… ‘Elegy of a Common Soldier’

We are all used to the ‘War Poets’ of the Great War, but perhaps not so aware of poets writing about the Second World War. Dennis B Wilson’s Elegy of a Common Soldier was written at a time between the trenches in Normandy and being in hospital in Swansea in 1944 and conjures up the horrible detail of war juxtaposed with nature and what was once normal. Quite arresting. I was unaware of his work until I read an article in The Sunday Times Magazine about Mr Wilson’s reunion with a branch of the family he didn’t know existed: his father, novelist Alexander Wilson, had actually been married to four woman at the same time, producing numerous children. So in his late eighties, Dennis B Wilson discovered new relatives, including actress Ruth Wilson. She says of the poet: ‘As a wounded soldier in the Second World War, he bore witness to so many things, including the D-Day landings, all of which he wrote about in his poetry. I feel I have kindred spirits in my new-found family, I certainly do with Dennis. It may have taken this long to find each other, but I’m so pleased we have.’ If you
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Categories: Book Love and Poetry.

Book review: Noonday

It seems inevitable that the final novel in a trilogy which started with the Great War should end with the Blitz, and that the theme should be death. Death, grief, guilt at being alive, guilt at longing for death, and guilt at wishing another dead. Noonday is a fitting end to the ‘Life Class’ trilogy by Pat Barker, the tale of three young artists – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville – which started on the verge of the Great War in Life Class, and continued through the war in Toby’s Room. But although the context is war, there are a lot of other things going on. The story opens with Elinor at the country home of her mother, who is dying. The assorted relatives wait, in the scorching heat, for death to arrive. Also present is Kenny, an evacuee sent from London to avoid death by bombing. So, the shadow of death is present from the very first page. Don’t forget about Kenny, he is important, particularly in the impact he has on Paul Tarrant – now Elinor’s husband. Paul’s connection with this sorry out-of-place boy leads him to a meeting with a medium, Bertha Mason. This is
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Book of Lies

What is the truth and what is a lie? Is a fib a lie, is an omission a lie? And what would make you lie? To save yourself, to save a loved one? Is it okay to lie in war? I read this book by Mary Horlock without keeping the title in my mind, but at the end I knew what the title meant. The island of Guernsey is the setting for this family story told through the eyes of two children: in 1985, Catherine is 15; in 1940, her uncle Charlie is 12. He sees the German soldiers arrive to occupy the small island; a generation later, Cat still feels the after-effects of the lies told then. More lies are being told now, the difficulty is in identifying truth from lies. Cat is central to the novel. She is an irreverent narrator who tells us not only her own story but also the history of the island and her family’s war story. She was told both stories by her father, and now that he is dead Cat wishes she had asked him more questions. Cat’s voice is a true teenager, her banter is littered with humour, insecurity, crushes, curiosity
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Categories: Book Love.

How Kate Atkinson writes

Kate Atkinson: “This is a novel, not a polemic [and I am no historian] and I have accordingly left the doubts and ambiguities for the characters and the text to voice.” [in Author’s Note, in the Doubleday paperback edition of ‘A God in Ruins’] In her Author’s Note at the back of A God in Ruins [how I much prefer to read these texts after I have read the novel, not before], Kate Atkinson explains that she decided to write a novel about the Second World War, “I rather grandiosely believed that I could somehow cover the whole conflict in less than half the length of War and Peace”. Of course she couldn’t and so she settled on the London Blitz in Life After Life, and the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in its companion novel A God in Ruins. It is the difficulties of bombing that she leaves in the mouths and minds of her characters. She writes of the perils for the novelist of writing a story based on true events. “There is nothing that happens during the chapters set during the war in A God in Ruins that isn’t in some way based on a real-life incident
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Categories: Book Love, On Researching and On Writing.

Book review: A God in Ruins

If the best recommendation for a novel is that, once you finish it, you want to start reading it all over again, then this is my recommendation for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. The story of Teddy Todd reeled me in until I was reading late into the night. Teddy is brother to Ursula Todd, who featured in Atkinson’s Life after Life, but this is not a sequel. More a companion piece, one book informs the other but stands up fully on its own. Read either first, it doesn’t matter. This is a book about war – the Second World War, the daily grind of Teddy’s life as a bomber pilot – and the effect this experience has on the rest of his life. War doesn’t happen and then go away, it colours lives and affects them until death, mostly unnoticed or misunderstood by relatives. And so we see Teddy’s life, told in a chopped up manner with excerpts from his childhood, war, early marriage and fatherhood, and as a much-loved grandfather. I don’t think I’m giving much away here to say he survives the war, but Atkinson’s descriptions of his bomber sorties are realistic, we feel the cold, the
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Categories: Book Love.

My Top 5… World War Two novels

This was an impossible list to write. My childhood was filled with World War Two novels and films, plus lots of cowboy and westerns too, thanks to my father. So this list combines childhood favourites with literature discovered in later years. ‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron Who can forget the book, or that scene in the 1982 film. Sophie’s Choice: the phrase now commonly known to mean ‘an impossible choice’. Buy now ‘Where Eagles Dare’ by Alistair MacLean The 1968 film: Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, need I say more? I gobbled Alistair MacLean’s books as a child; cheap paperbacks bought by my father and read by us all. Old-fashioned now, but still great page-turners. Buy now ‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally I bought this one in July 1983 after it won the 1982 Booker Prize. In 1993 it was made into the film Schindler’s List starring Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern and a young Ralph Fiennes as the terrifying Amon Goeth. Buy now ‘Fortunes of War 1-3’ [The Balkan Trilogy] by Olivia Manning Guy and Harriet Pringle [aka a very young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thomspon, then married in real life, in the 1987 BBC
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Book review: Marking Time

September 2, 1939: Germany has invaded Poland and, for the Cazalet family in London and Sussex, war seems imminent. The story is told from 1939 to 1941 from the viewpoints of three Cazalet cousins, teenagers Polly, Louise and Clary. Marking Time is second in the five-book series The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. We see them growing up quickly, forced to face war and death before their time, watch their parents struggle with ordinary life and relationships and health crises which continue despite the fighting. One day a German bomber crashes into a nearby field and Christopher, a pacifist, runs out to prevent the local men from shooting the injured Germans. Afterwards, Polly and Christopher go for a walk. Polly thinks “how odd it was that when one wanted everything to be good with somebody, one started not telling them everything.” They come to understand that their parents are not just parents, but people too with their own feelings and worries. Polly wonders if “concealment and deceit were a necessary part of human relationships. Because if they were, she was going to be pretty bad at them.” Louise is at acting school but struggles to play a character ‘in
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Light Years

If you haven’t read this book [it is the first in a series of five], you are in for a treat. Elizabeth Jane Howard died last year at the age of 90 and this prompted me to buy ‘The Cazalet Chronicles’. I recently read them on holiday, back-to-back and know I will re-read them many more times. This is a great family saga, a glimpse of upstairs and downstairs as World War Two threatens the Cazalet family. Over the course of these five books we see the changing social geography of England through the prism of this family, the changing lives of the women and servants, wartime privations, the threat to the family timber business as they face up to the reality of fear. Oh how I gobbled up these novels. This, the first, introduces us to the family: the patriarch William and his wife The Duchy, their three sons – Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their wives – and daughter Rachel. As a new war threatens, the hidden wounds of the Great War have not healed and there is no appetite for another. The family gathers at the Sussex house, Home Place, which is the hub of the action.
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Midnight in Europe

1938. Spain at war, Europe on the brink of war. This is the first World War Two novel I have read about the overlap of the two wars, the impact of one on the other, and the approaching shadow of fascism. Nothing happens in isolation. The Spanish Civil War is notoriously difficult to understand: so many factions, changing names etc. Sensibly, Alan Furst concentrates on one aspect: the supply of weapons to the Republicans fighting the fascist army of Franco. A secret Spanish agency in Paris sources arms and ammunition for the Republicans. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris and working for a French law firm, is asked to help. Unsure what he is getting into, but resigned to help his mother country, he is soon looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed – he doesn’t know who by, it could be the Spanish fascists, the Gestapo, the Russians. Inter-cut with Ferrar’s story are excerpts from the front line in Spain where preparations are being made to fight the Battle of the Ebro. The need for the weapons is desperate, as bullets are counted out for each soldier. Working with an odd mixture of
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Categories: Book Love.