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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

lightruinsWhat do you mean school starts this week?! Not that I’m going, but summer’s not over, and I have a towering TBR list to prove it. But before I can get to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, which is as twisted as Twin Peaks, or to Samantha Shannon’s futuristic The Bone Season, which she wrote when she was a 19-year-old Oxford student, I need to catch up on assorted other books read but not yet blogged.
Love and revenge play out in Chris Bohjalian’s absorbing The Light in the Ruins (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), part WWII saga, part police procedural. In 1943 Tuscany, the aristocratic Rosatis are coerced into welcoming a German archaelogist and Nazi soldiers to the family villa. But that’s just the half of it. Ten years later, Florence police detective Seraphina Bettini follows a serial killer targeting the surviving Rosatis, and the trail leads her back to the war and her own past as a young partisan. I’m not much on the interspersed short chapters from the bloodthirsty killer’s point-of-view. Not only are they redundant, but they also give away the assassin’s identity.
butterflysisterAmy Gail Hansen spins an intriguing, coincidence-studded first novel, The Butterfly Sister (Morrow, digital galley). Ruby Rousseau mistakenly receives a suitcase belonging to her former Tarble College classmate Beth Richards, then learns that Beth has gone missing. A copy of a Virginia Woolf book among Beth’s possessions suggests to Ruby that Beth was entangled with campus lothario and professor Mark Suter, who broke Ruby’s heart and led to her attempting suicide. Returning to the women’s college near Chicago for a convenient reunion, Ruby, supposedly on assignment for a small newspaper, finds that another student has been hospitalized because of an aborted suicide. Complications ensue, encompassing campus politics, plagiarism and sexual harassment, as well as the shades of Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Sylvia Plath. Then again, Ruby may not be the most reliable narrator.
skyeJessica Brockmole skirts sentimentality with Letters from Skye (Random House, digital galley), a novel of love and war told entirely in letters. The first correspondents are Scottish poet Elspeth Grant and American student David Graham. He sends her a fan letter in 1912, and the ensuing exchange charts their relationship through the first World War, as Elspeth’s young husband goes off to the front lines and David becomes an ambulance driver in France. Do their paths ever intersect? Years later, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret writes to her estranged uncle and her fiance about her quest to find out more about her father, whom Elspeth wouldn’t talk about. You might think you know where the story is going, but Brockmole surprises with her missives, scattering clues here and there. Read between the lines.
spearWhat are the chances of two authors, each taking a break from an established series, setting their new novels in the same exotic locale? We’re off to 1920s Kenya with disgraced socialite Delilah Drummond in Deanna Raybourn’s A Spear of Summer Grass (Harlequin, digital galley). The dissolute expat milieu would seem to be the perfect place for vain Delilah, but her romance with the dashing Ryder White and her experiences with the Kikuyu tribe show her to made of stronger stuff as she pursues a new life.
willigThere’s also romance, adventure and scandal in Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair (St. Martin’s, review ARC), which intertwines the story of Manhattan attorney Clemmie with that of her 99-year-old grandmother Addie. Addie’s tale, which reaches back to World War I London and then post-war Kenya, is the more interesting, tied as it is to her rich cousin Bea’s exploits and affairs. Clemmie’s research of the family tree yields secrets and surprises.

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floraIt’s the summer of 1945 and, in a big old house in a North Carolina mountain town, 10-year-old Helen is under the guardianship of her 22-year-old cousin Flora.

From just that outline, I thought I knew what would happen in Gail Godwin’s new book Flora: A Novel (Bloomsbury, digital galley via NetGalley). Young Helen would be dazzled by the sophistication of her older cousin and would want to emulate her in all things, right up to the fateful moment of betrayal when Flora’s feet of clay would be revealed. After all, similar plots have driven other coming-of-age novels, including Anne Rivers Siddons’ Nora, Nora, Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, even Godwin’s 1984 The Finishing School.

Well, I was wrong, way wrong, but Godwin gets everything right in her lovely, nuanced story of girls and guardians and the ghosts who haunt our hearts. Helen Anstruther, a writer in her 70s, looks back to when she was “going on 11,” and still reckoning with the recent death of her beloved grandmother who has raised her since her own mother died years ago. Now her father, the high school principal, has gone off to do secret war work in Oak Ridge and has imported his wife’s cousin Flora from Alabama to look after Helen.

Helen — precocious, imaginative, a bit bratty — is patently disdainful of country mouse Flora, an effusive pleaser who wears her heart on her sleeve. And there is no escape — the two are confined to the house and yard because of a polio outbreak, their only visitors the minister, the housekeeper Mrs. Jones, and the ex-soldier Finn who delivers groceries. Helen is the first to meet Finn and hear his history, and she’s increasingly possessive of his attention, even fantasizing the day when her father returns, Flora goes back to Alabama to teach school, and Finn moves into the house. He’ll be able to choose from the rooms named after “the Recoverers,” the former TB sufferers and ex-mental patients who once lived there under the care of Helen’s doctor grandfather.

Godwin seamlessly blends summer set pieces — Flora and Helen playing “Fifth Grade,” the two entertaining Finn for dinner, Helen talking books and ghosts to Mrs. Jones  — with the rich backstory of family history. Helen clings to Flora’s comments about the mother she doesn’t remember, and upbraids Flora when she unwittingly welcomes a visit from a relative her grandmother despised. But the outside world doesn’t really intrude until news of the Hiroshima bombing arrives on the eve of Helen’s birthday, when Helen herself initiates the events whose devastating consequences follow her the rest of her life.

Years later, she turns that summer over in her mind, remembers Flora, reflects on remorse — and writes this fine book.

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atkinsonMy friend Dean recently banned the use of  the old Yogi Berra saying “deja vu all over again” because it is  misused and overused, cliched and redundant.  But when I first started reading Kate Atkinson’s kaleidoscopic new novel Life After Life (Little, Brown, digital galley via NetGalley), I kept thinking of it, especially when Ursula Todd’s mother says of her daughter “she has a kind of deja vu all the time.”

Not surprising when Ursula lives and dies multiple times over the course of the novel, which is so much more than a narrative parlor trick, a literary Groundhog Day, or an episode of Dr. Who. (Come to think of it, though, Ursula appears to be a kindred spirit of the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, who has died at least twice already that viewers know of.)

Ursula first is stillborn on a snowy February night in 1910. A few pages later, the umbilical cord is cut from her neck and she breathes. But her seemingly idyllic Yorkshire childhood is filled with perils: crashing waves, slippery roofs, Spanish flu. “Darkness falls” is Atkinson’s signature cue for Ursula’s demise so another scenario can be played out, events slightly altered and leading down different roads. Not to spoil things, but in one life Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher; in another, she marries a German lawyer and has a child. In that life, she also knows Eva Braun and is caught in the bombing of Berlin. But in other lives, she both dies and survives the London Blitz several times as “darkness falls” over England and Europe. Eventually, the book circles back to its 1930 prologue when an English woman points a gun at Hitler because, of course, if you could go back and “get things right,” you’d want to kill him, too.

The Blitz, as Atkinson says, is the “dark beating heart” of the novel and her set pieces are accordingly horrific as to the damage inflicted on people, animals, birds and buildings. Again and again, the story returns to a subterranean cellar of a house on Argyll Road, where residents shelter during air raids. “It was a maze, a moldy, unpleasant space, full of spiders and beetles, and felt horribly crowded if they were all in there, especially once the Millers’ dog, a shapeless rug of fur called Billy, was dragged reluctantly down the stairs to join them.”

Atkinson surrounds Ursula with a fully realized family: banker father Hugh and faceted mother Sylvie,  obnoxious brother Maurice, bohemian aunt Izzie, beloved brother Teddy, reliable sister Pamela. Their fates, too, change, depending on which of Ursula’s lives you’re following at the time. Then there’s the memorable supporting cast, including heroic air raid warden Miss Woolf, married naval officer Crighton, childhood friends Millie,  Nancy, Fred, Ben. Like some details — a piece of costume jewelry, or a small white dog, or gold cigarette case — they keep showing up in different plotlines. 

You might wonder as to the point of all these pluralities, other than Atkinson stretching the storytelling envelope. Those familiar with her Jackson Brodie crime novels such as Case History or the semi-time-travel tale Human Croquet know she’s already a deft and inventive writer. I’ll read anything she has written. But Life After Life, both playful and poignant, strikes me as her best book yet, “bearing witness” to lives gone before, yet reimagining life’s possibilities. I can’t wait to read it again.

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Whew! Glad that’s over. Oh, wait. You thought I was talking about the election? Well, that, too. But it seemed like it took me forever to finish Kate Morton’s new doorstop of a novel The Secret Keeper (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley & paperback ARC). I loved Morton’s The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, but just liked The Distant Hours and now this one. Too many secrets but not enough surprises.

Fifty years ago, 16-year-old Laurel witnessed her mother Dorothy’s violent encounter with a stranger. Now Dorothy is turning 90 and in frail help; Laurel, an accomplished actress, joins her younger sisters at the family farm and is determined to find out the truth about the glossed-over incident. Several clues — an inscribed copy of Peter Pan, a photo of two young women, and the murmured name “Jimmy” — lead her back to the London Blitz, when Dorothy, aka Dolly, was a bright young thing from Coventry doing her bit for the war effort. She has a photographer boyfriend, and she greatly admires a beautiful neighbor, Vivien, married to a famous author.

Morton seamlessly shifts between present and past, spinning involving stories within stories. Laurel eventually connects the dots, proving that, as a child, you never really know what your parents were up to when they were young, and how long-kept secrets shape lives over time. The characters are interesting, the wartime atmosphere evoked in detail, but the plot’s not that original. Morton reminded me of a kinder, gentler Barbara Vine, the pseudonym Ruth Rendell uses when writing her serpentine tales. Vine/Rendell is more likely to tie up loose ends with a noose instead of a big bow.

Laura, the intense, angst-ridden narrator of Jenn Ashworth’s Cold Light (HarperCollins, digital galley via NetGalley), has been keeping secrets for a decade about her 14-year-old best friend’s suicide pact with her boyfriend. It has damaged her life to the point that she has no life to speak of — a menial cleaning job where she can remain an outsider, no friends except Emma, who was also close to dead Chloe. Now, at a ceremony commemorating Chloe, another body is found. Laura knows the identity of the corpse and the terrifying circumstances that led to a long-ago accidental death — or was it murder? Ashworth fashions a chilly tale of friendship, jealousy, betrayal.

Fiona Griffiths, the rookie Cardiff cop who stars in Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley), has secrets in her background to rival those of the victims in the cases she works. There’s the two-year-gap in her resume, for starters, and there’s also the matter of her close family’s history with crime. These secrets are alluded to as Fiona — young, intense, a bit of an odd duck — is detailed to the sordid death of a hooker and her six-year-old daughter. Drugs are the likely culprit, but the credit card of a missing tycoon hints at something darker, deeper. Bingham jump-starts this new series with a complicated protagonist with unusual issues.

I don’t think it’s possible for a good Southern mystery not to have family secrets, but Margaret Maron does her Deborah Knott series proud with  The Buzzard Table (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley.) She provides a heaping helping of secrets small and large, private and public as her other series detective, NYPD’s Sigrid Harald, joins Deborah and her deputy sheriff husband Dwight on their North Carolina home turf.

Sigrid and her mother, prize-winning photographer Anne Lattimore, have returned to visit the ailing family matriarch, as has long-lost cousin Martin Crawford, an ornithologist studying Southern vultures. He unfortunately manages to be in at the scene of several crimes — the discovery of the dumped body of a murdered real-estate agent in the woods, the vicious assault on a nerdy high school student, and the unexplained death of a man at a nearby airport hotel. The airfield itself is a point of contention as the CIA is using it as a fueling stop.

Maron adroitly shifts perspectives among the characters, including personable Deborah’s first-person narrative, and opens each chapter with fascinating details about buzzards, natural recycling machines who get little respect. They have secrets, too.

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I always start a book with the intention of finishing it. Mostly, I do, although it may take awhile and I’ll be reading other books in between. That happened with Amanda Coplin’s first novel, The Orchardist (HarperCollins, purchased hardcover), which I bought back in August because it was getting such great reviews. It was slow going at first, the grave and graceful prose suited to to the subdued story of a reclusive man in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. William Talmadge is devoted to the land, his fruit trees, the memory of his lost sister. But when two pregnant runaways steal his fruit, he ends up sheltering the girls with unimagined consequences.  It’s a tale that’s in the telling, and I eventually was seduced by the narrative and the details of lives long ago.

I’m usually quite fond of unreliable narrators; I like the ambiguity, the play of memory and invention. But to fully appreciate John Banville’s Ancient Light (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), I need to go back and reread 2000’s Eclipse, which first introduces readers to actor Alex Cleave. And I think I better read Shroud, which I somehow missed, and which has some overlapping characters. One of these days. Meanwhile, Banville’s silky writing pulled me through Alex’s memories of  his teenage love affair with the mother of one of his friends, but not his present life of regret and woe. Perhaps I also should have first read Joan Acocella’s review, “Doubling Down,” in the Oct. 8 issue of The New Yorker. I appear to have missed a lot. I expect I’ll try again, one of these days…

The three novels in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy are among my favorites about World War I, bringing together imagined characters with historical ones, including famous poets and doctors. She used the same strategy in Life Class with artists and teachers, and now again in Toby’s Room (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), a sort of prequel-sequel. But I was put off by the too-closeness of young artist Elinor Brooke’s relationship with her brother Toby, who goes off to war and is listed as missing, presumed dead. Determined to know Toby’s fate, Elinor turns to fellow Slade students, Kit and Paul, who were both wounded on the battlefield. Kit’s grievous facial injuries tie into the true story of artists helping surgeons develop prosthetics. I get what Barker is trying to do — war disfigures all, inside and out — but I just didn’t care for the story.

I know I’m going to finish Mark Helprin’s big, bold In Sunlight and in Shadow (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley via NetGalley), because I was two-thirds through its 700 pages (in teeney galley type) before I was distracted by a couple of fast-paced crime novels. Set in post-World War II New York City with flashbacks to the war, the story centers on veteran Harry Copeland who falls in love at first sight of lovely Catherine Hale on the Staten Island ferry. His affections are returned, but repercussions ensue big-time when Catherine jilts her wealthy fiance. As in Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin writes with lavish lyricism, burnished with nostalgia. I’m going to be upset if it doesn’t have a happy ending.

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Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels unreel like classic black-and-white films, so it’s fitting that Frederic Stahl, the hero of Mission to Paris (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is a handsome Hollywood actor. Loaned out by Warner Bros. to Paramount France in the summer of 1938, Stahl will play a soldier returning from the Great War, a role like many of his others, “a warm man in a cold world.” But because he was born in Vienna, and Germany is now allied with Austria, Stahl is of particular interest to the Nazi propagandists who want to use him in their “rapprochement” campaign with the French. Repelled by the Germans and Hitler, Stahl takes on another role for the American embassy, passing on information gleaned from cocktail parties, “pillow talk” and a Berlin film festival. Not surprisingly, he finds he has talents as a spy and becomes caught up in more pre-war intrigue threatening the cast and crew of his film as they shoot on location in Morocco and Hungary.

This is all familiar, beloved territory for Furst fans. No one is better at evoking the shadows falling across Europe “as the lights go out,” and ordinary souls reacting to extraordinary circumstances. A few characters from previous books make appropriate cameos, and, of course, there is the requisite scene at the Brasserie Heininger and its most-requested Table 14. The atmosphere is thick with secrets, romance, unease, suspicion. Stahl plays the lead, but Paris is again the star.

Joseph Kanon expertly evokes the crossroads of Europe and Asia in Istanbul Passage (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley). It’s 1945, and the war is pretty much over, but Turkey continues its precarious balancing act of “neutrality,” spying on everyone. American expat businessman Leon Bauer, whose hospitalized German-Jewish wife has retreated from the real world after witnessing a tragedy, is an”irregular,” an off-the-books occasional spy. But then an appointed meeting with a Romanian defector that should have been routine goes awry, shots are fired, and suddenly Leon is a secret agent for real. “The  lies got easier, one leading to the next until you believed them yourself.”

Kanon’s story is as layered as Istanbul itself with history, religion, politics and culture. The Americans want to find the leak in their intelligence headquarters. The Russians want the Romanian, implicated in wartime atrocities. The Turkish police are looking for a killer, and the Turkish secret service is keeping tabs on the old boats in the harbor filled with Jewish refugees looking for safe passage to Palestine. How much is a human life worth, and does it matter if that life belongs to a former enemy? Leon has choices to make as an American, a spy, a husband and a lover, but all are risky, physically and morally. Kanon is right there with Furst and le Carre in depicting the spies’ world of smoke and mirrors, way more than fifty shades of gray.

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I’m not sure why I put off reading Code Name Verity, the new historical novel from Elizabeth Wein that was published last month. I’d heard good things about it, and I’d had the galley for awhile. But a story about two English girls during World War II, one of whom has been captured by the Gestapo, sounded like something that might end in tears, and the cover didn’t help, with its picture of two arms bound at the wrist with twine and “verity” spelled out in blood-red type. So not a beach book.

Then I started reading it Sunday during a rain delay in the French Open finals, and just as well the match was eventually postponed. “I am a coward.”

I couldn’t put it down. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was.”

Really, I think I carried it into the kitchen to get another Diet Coke   “I have always been good at pretending.”

I finished it as the evening news came on. Even then, I half-expected a report on the Nazi occupation of France and RAF missions over the Channel. I was still in 1943 with Verity.

Of course, that’s a code-name. Her friends call her Queenie, because she comes from a family of aristocratic Scots with their own castle. Really, if it hadn’t been for the war breaking down class barriers she’d probably never have met Maddie, whose Russian grandfather has a bike shop near Manchester. The two would never have become best friends, “a sensational team” until a mission to France goes awry, with spy Queenie parachuting early into enemy territory and pilot Maddie crash-landing their plane.

I’m not going to tell you a lot more because it would spoil a plot so cleverly constructed that you race through the book as if running pell-mell through the woods, no time to stop and look at the trees much less picture the forest.

Queenie is writing for her life, confessing “absolutely every detail” to a Gestapo captain and his henchwoman in exchange for no more torture and a few more days before her inevitable fate. She’ll give up codes, locate airfields, detail all the planes Maddie flew. Just keep her in ink and paper — creamy hotel stationery from the chateau-turned-prison, a Jewish doctor’s prescription pad, sheet music from a vanished student. She is alternately terrified, impudent, rebellious and self-deprecating as she writes about herself in the third-person from Maddie’s point of view, mostly because she can’t stand to think about her old self, “so earnest and self-righteous and flamboyantly heroic.”

I’m going to stop now. There are only so many times I can reread certain phrases, like quotes from Peter Pan, or “Fly the plane, Maddie,” or “Kiss me, Hardy!” without scaring the cat with my sobs. And that’s the truth.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion via NetGalley). It’s being marketed as a YA book, but like John Green’s recent The Fault in Our Stars, it should reach a wide crossover audience.

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The Japanese men advise their “picture brides,” newly arrived by boat to California: “Be humble. Be polite. Appear eager to please. Say ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No,  sir,’ and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.”

But this invisible world is teeming with stories, and in a beautiful prose poem of a novel, The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka gives haunting voice to the women’s tales of coming to America in the years before World War II. She does this by employing the first-person plural to singular effect:

“Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years. . .Some of us came from the mountains and had never before seen the sea, except in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives.”

They carry with them the pictures of their husbands, wondering if they will recognize them when they step off the dock. They hope for a  life away from the rice paddies.  They are seasick. They miss their mothers. “At night we dreamed of our husbands. We dreamed of new wooden  sandals and endless bolts of indigo silk and of living, one day, in a house with a chimney. We dreamed we were lovely and tall.”

What happens to those dreams becomes the stuff of a series of short, themed chapters. After the boat are the surprises and tears of “First Night,” followed by the strangeness of “Whites,” as the women become fruit pickers, sharecroppers, laundresses, house maids, or prostitutes. In “Babies,” they give birth in dusty vineyards, on  a remote farm, in an apple orchard, a tent, by kerosene light on a comforter brought from Japan in a trunk. “It still had my mother’s smell.”  Some babies die and are buried beside a stream; “but have moved so many times since we can no longer remember where she is.” 

“The Children” grow up, taller, stronger, speaking English, resentful, even ashamed, of their mothers, who are still proud, who try to  teach them manners, which chopstick to use. “Never take the last piece of food on a plate.” 

These offspring have their own plans and dreams. “One wanted to become a doctor. One wanted to become his sister. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw the darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.”

That darkness, of course, is World War II and internment, and it is what the book has been building toward in its incancatory, spellbinding sentences. There are rumors of of a list. Some husbands disappear in the night. Comfort is taken in the routines of a hot bowl of rice, a weed dug, a child put safely to bed. “Soon we were hearing stories of entire communities being taken away.” And then it is “Last Day.”

But this is not book’s end. In “A Disappearance,” the narrative voice switches to the community who notices the Japanese are gone, shops closed, windows boarded up, stray dogs everywhere who need new homes.  “With each passing day, the notices on the telephone poles go increasingly faint.”  They don’t know where they have gone, and a year on, and almost all traces of the Japanese have vanished.

Thanks to Oksuta, though, the Japanese picture brides will never be invisible again.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of  The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Oksuta (Knopf) that was made available through NetGalley. Then I ordered a copy as a gift for my cousin who used to live in Japan. And I read it one more time, non-stop, beginning to end.

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