Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski ~ 1942. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2019. (Furrowed Middlebrow – FM35). Softcover. 224 pages.

Those of us with a penchant for reading middlebrow fiction of the second to sixth decades of the 20th Century have been quietly delighted by the recent collaboration (since 2016) between Dean Street Press and book blogger extraordinaire Scott of the deliciously, dangerously eclectic Furrowed Middlebrow.

A steadily growing list of unfairly forgotten out-of-print “women’s literature” has been assembled from hither and yon, dusted off,  re-read and assessed for republication. I’ve been acquiring quite a few of these, and have found every single one of them to be interesting in some form or another, though occasionally I strike one which is not completely enthralling.

Such as this one.

Table Two starts out with considerable promise, as we are introduced to a range of characters working in a (fictional) branch of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in the early years of World War II.

Elsie Pearne is chief among the group of female translators transcribing various documents from a wide variety of foreign languages into English. Elsie is perhaps the most intelligent and efficient of the eclectic group working away at Table Two in the Ministry Office. (We never get to know the ladies of Table One, as they exist merely to provide a vaguely antagonistic counterpoint to the Table Two-ers.)

Elsie is clever enough, but she’s also bitter and prickly, having been wronged in childhood by bullying peers and in adolescence by her family – she was made to give up a scholarship position and go out to work at the age of thirteen – and she has an extraordinarily tenacious chip on her shoulder as a result of the setbacks she has undoubtedly experienced.

Elsie’s practical talents and drive to succeed are considerable, but her equally strong tone deafness to the nuances of common social relationships means that she will never quite figure out why no one appreciates her true worth. When a junior translator joins the group, Elsie is determined to strike a blow at her co-workers (she knows full well how unpopular she is) and annex pretty, popular young Anne as her very own belle amie, triggering a cascading series of hurt feelings and convoluted misunderstandings which coincide with the onset of the London Blitz.

Unfortunately, the darkly humorous character portraits of Elsie, Anne and the rest of the Table Two staffers aren’t quite enough to carry the weaknesses of the office-drama plot, and the second half of the novel fades in interest as the author gradually loses control of her story.

Drawn from the writer’s personal experiences as detailed in the interesting Introduction by Elizabeth Crawford, Table Two is readable enough, but ultimately more for period colour than for polished literary quality.

This was Marjorie Wilenski’s one and only novel. It certainly shows initial strength of narrative and character development; it is regrettable that the author appears not to have had the opportunity to further develop her technique.

Recommended for readers looking to round out their World War II “first-hand fiction” collections, with the stated reservations.

My rating: 6.5/10

Read Full Post »

Queen Anne's Lace - end of summer - two years ago at White Rock, B.C.

Queen Anne’s Lace – end of summer – two years ago at White Rock Beach, B.C. Seems like that particular road trip happened only just yesterday… insert desired cliché about the ever-more-swift passage of time here…only four more months of this particular year left now – where did it go?!


This second completed decade in my 2014 Century of Books Project consists of books which are, predictably because of the era, either directly concerned with World War II, or refer to it as an off-stage plot element. Only two make no reference to it at all, namely Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County (published in 1940 as pulp magazine serial – pure entertainment), and Miles Franklin’s My Career Goes Bung (written several decades before its 1946 publication.)

There were so many books to choose from in reading for this decade; the difficulty was not in finding likely candidates but in deciding which ones to set aside. As it is I have doubled up (and in some cases tripled and quadrupled) on many of the years; I have had to say firmly to myself: “No more!”

Digression alert! Regarding the ratings out of 10 – these are merely a reflection of my personal response to what I am reading, and how satisfying an experience it turns out to be for me. The ratings in no way represent “literary merit”, for Hugh Walpole’s novel The Blind Man’s House, rated below at 5.5, is decidedly superior in every literary sense to D.E. Stevenson’s The English Air (9) and Crooked Adam (6.5). But I expected more from Walpole, and his relatively lesser rating means merely that I didn’t feel that my readerly desires were fully satisfied compared to how well they they could have been from a writer of his calibre. Not meaning to pick on Hugh Walpole, and to audaciously celebrate D.E. Stevenson – merely using them for examples as they are handily first on the list.

Now we may proceed. 🙂

I’ve again highlighted a few as worthy of extra notice – scroll down to the bottom for another award lists.


And here they are, in their (mostly) tattered and well-read glory.

1940 ~ The English Air by D.E. Stevenson ~ A half-German, half-English young man visits England in the year before the start of World War II. Is his visit strictly social, or something more sinister? A rather low-key storyline compared to 1942’s super-dramatic Crooked Adam, but quite lovely in its character portraits. (9/10)

1941 ~ The Blind Man’s House by Hugh Walpole ~ A complex psychological drama concerning the effects of the blindness of  Sir Julius Cromwell on his wife, his friend, and the many characters who make up the Cromwell household and social circle. I thought it reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though – I hasten to add – without the “John Thomas” scenes. Walpole’s Ladyship doesn’t indulge in such extra-marital escapades. (5.5/10)

1942 ~ Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ Schoolmaster Adam Southey, refused entry into the Services due to a childhood injury, instead proves his patriotism by chasing down Nazi spies in the wilds of Scotland. Highly contrived, and hugely unlikely, but a good example of a “Hurray for our side!” wartime entertainment. (6.5/10)

1943 ~ Lady in Waiting by Rory Gallagher ~ A frothy and light satire about an upper-middle-class American pregnancy, with few of the details spared. Vintage Mommy-Lit, in other words, and really rather fun in its own way, though the relentlessly chirpy voice of the narrator occasionally has me wanting to (temporarily, not fatally) smother her with one of her voluminous pregnancy smocks. (6.5/10)

1944 ~ Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ Non-fiction/personal account. A sober yet impassioned personal account of an American woman’s wartime experience in France. Married to a member of the French upper class and left alone to care for their young daughter and the family estates when he is interned by the German forces, Margaret must decide for herself how to proceed, which she does with steadfast resolve and an immense contempt for the enemy race. (10/10)

1945 ~ The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ A formulaic historical fiction/domestic drama about a social climbing Victorian and her musically adept young niece. By the prolific author Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published 100 novels between the 1920s and 1980s, under various pseudonyms including Laura Conway and Hebe Elsna. Well-written for its genre but ultimately forgettable. (5/10)

1946 ~ My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin ~ Another version of My Brilliant Career’s Sybylla rants against the misunderstanding her teenage bestseller has attracted, as she finds her way into and out of Sydney literary society. Published several decades after its completion, and a bit dated in its references, but nonetheless a diverting read with a gloriously full-of-herself heroine. (9/10)

1947 ~ The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ A cleanly written noir novel centered on a devoted mother’s protection of her teenage daughter from a blackmailer after an inconvenient man turns up very dead. (9.5/10)

1948 ~ North Face by Mary Renault ~ A gloomy post-World War II novel concerning the emotional traumas of Neil and Ellen, and their coming to terms with their tragic pasts and gleam-of-hope futures. A rock climbing theme prevails, all Freudian and symbolic. (6/10)

1949 ~ The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams ~ Non-fiction/personal account. A clever and dangerous escape from Stalag Luft III is described by one of the participants. Enthralling! (8.5/10)

And the “bonus” books:

1940 ~ The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ The epitome of pulp “western” fiction, by the creator of the immortal Tarzan. Wrongly accused of the murder of his romantic interest’s father, rancher/deputy sheriff Buck Mason seeks the real killer while visiting a dude ranch disguised as an Eastern polo player. He sorts everything out, nails the real villains, and finds true love. Did we ever doubt the outcome?! (4/10)

1941 ~ Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ An Oxford don and his wife undertake a secret spying mission in Europe as the clouds of war gather overhead. (8.5/10)

1942 ~ Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ An English officer is sent to Brittany on a spying mission, with the lucky coincidence of being able to masquerade as a convenient double who was evacuated to England at Dunkirk. Much drama and a fair bit of bloodshed. (9/10)

1942 ~ Pied Piper by Nevil Shute ~ Shute’s fast-moving and exceedingly likeable propaganda novel, starring a stoic elderly Englishman rescuing an eclectic group of endangered children from Nazi-occupied France in the early years of World War II. Not very believable, perhaps, but a good yarn nonetheless. (9.5/10)

1942 ~ The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ An über-light novella concerning a winsome pair of Anglo-Polish war refugees shoehorned into a dreadfully upbeat formula romance between the eldest sibling, 19-year-old Louisa, and a middle-aged history professor, Smith. The 7-year-old brother Jeri provides cuteness and pathos. (3/10)

1942 ~ West with the Night by Beryl Markham ~ A slightly uneven but overall excellent memoir telling of the author’s youth in Africa and her experiences training racehorses and later learning to fly small planes. Beryl eventually became the first person to solo-fly the Atlantic from East to West. An amazing woman; a very readable personal account of her earlier days. (9.5/10)

1945 ~ Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood ~ A series of linked episodes gleaned from Isherwood’s own experiences in mid-wars Berlin, 1930-33. Utterly chilling from our historical perspective; utterly fascinating for the character portraits the author produces. This is the “I am a camera book”, and one of those character portraits is off the now-ubiquitous Sally Bowles. (Made famous by Liza Minnelli, and now a staple turn in every small town triple-threat dreamer’s stage-struck repertoire.) (10/10)

 1946 ~ The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge ~ A bitter, deeply egotistical elderly woman copes with a rising hurricane at her Rhode Island summer home and mulls over the differences between now and the last great storm only a few years earlier. Perhaps a metaphor for American and her stance regarding world politics of the time? (7/10)

 1948 ~ Beowulf by Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) ~ A London teashop in the Blitz is at the heart of this linked series of vignettes and character portraits. This is fantastic, in a beautifully subfusc way. A writer to explore further. (9.5/10)

1949 ~ The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ A sweetly charming period piece aimed at the teen girl set of its day. Laurel heads off to co-ed college and mixes her studies with a full social life, the acquisition of a beau, and the solving of an old murder mystery. Pure fluff; great fun! (6/10)

1949 ~ Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple ~ The tale of two families and their unequal relationship, due in large part to a secret wrong perpetrated by the father of one family upon the widowed mother of the other. (9/10)

1949 ~ Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ~ Verging just the tiniest bit on bathos is this suspenseful tale of an English officer returning to France immediately after the end of WW II to seek for the little boy he saw only once as a newborn baby, child of a tragically brief wartime marriage with a French Resistance worker. (7.5/10)

1949 ~ My Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ A complicated domestic drama following a number of characters through times of challenge in post-World War II America. Domesticity and the roles of women are key features here. The writing is nothing special, but acceptable; the plot has moments of interest but the author tends to over-emphasize her key points, driving them home with a sledgehammer – a certain lack of finesse. (5/10)

 Most Beautiful Writing Award:

  1. West with the Night by Beryl Markham ~ 1942
  2. Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood  ~ 1945

Marshmallow Award (for purest fluff):

  1. The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ 1940
  2. The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ 1949
  3. Lady in Waiting by Rory Gallagher ~ 1943

Don’t-Expect-Many-Smiles Award:

  1. The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge  ~ 1946
  2. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ 1947
  3. North Face by Mary Renault ~ 1948

Sturdy British Manhood (Fictional) Award:

  1. Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1942

Karma-is-Grand Award:

  1. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple ~ 1949

Waste-of-Precious-Reading-Time Award:

  1. The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan  ~ 1942

Read Full Post »

yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 dj front 001Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ 1944. This edition: Lippincott, 1944. Hardcover. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Provenance: The Final Chapter, 1157A 3rd Ave., Prince George, B.C. – I have never walked out of this smallish but well-organized, eclectically stocked, jam-packed used book store empty-handed. If you’re ever in P.G., it’s very much worth a visit and a browse.

Yours is the Earth was a last-minute impulse buy earlier this year, a small triumph of instinct and luck over economy. As you can see, the cover isn’t terribly compelling – the “ringing, unforgettable testament of courage” and “Nazi hordes” references leading one to think that this may not be particularly well written, and perhaps slightly overwrought in tone.

If you think that (as I did) you’d be wrong; this is a remarkable work. It is very competently written for this sort of personal account, and though the author is exceedingly opinionated; she is never, ever hysterical or mawkish.

A compelling document of its time; very highly recommended for those interested in World War II and the German occupation of France. Yours is the Earth gives a unique perspective to what it was like to live in occupied France from a person of relative wealth, high social standing and, due to her American citizenship, considerable privilege with the German forces in the early war years, before the United States entered the conflict.

Margaret Vail was an American married to an aristocratic French landowner, Robert de Launay (“de Vigny” in the memoir; pseudonyms are used throughout, as the book was published while the war was still going on), and Margaret and Robert’s courtship and marriage is a fascinating story all on its own which is detailed in the early part of this book.

Robert was interned early in the German invasion; Margaret’s single-minded goals in the subsequent years were to secure the release and repatriation of her husband, to keep herself and her small daughter safe, and to preserve the family estates in as good a condition as possible. These last two were successful; the first never attained, which no doubt accounts for the occasionally bitter tone which permeates this memoir.

The memoir ends with several years of war yet to go; Robert is still in prison camp in Germany, and Margaret and her four-year-old daughter do leave France via a heroic alpine trek across the Pyrenees, as she has left her departure too late to be able to cross the French border in safety; American troops have been sent to participate in the invasion of North Africa and Americans still remaining in occupied France are being interned. Margaret and small Rose-Hélène spent the remaining war years in the United States, where Margaret wrote and published Yours is the Earth.

Here is an excerpt from Yours is the Earth. (Click on the image to enlarge it for reading.)

yours is the earth excerpt margaret vail 1944 001

Margaret’s hatred of the German race as a whole is utterly implacable, and this comes through loud and clear, though she does give the tiniest nod of grace to a German doctor who has occasion to treat her at one point.

The reader can frequently see the writer making what feels like a conscious effort to maintain an even-handed tone, making this something of a deliberately unemotional account, with Margaret reporting on her own harrowed feelings with analytical coolness and distance. This, to me, is the book’s one slight weakness. On the few occasions where she unbends and lets herself go she became a much more sympathetic narrator, and I cared much more deeply for her personal tribulations and her worries for her family.

I was very curious as to what the eventual outcome of Robert’s internment was to be, and I did find a snippet of information concerning the family’s post-war situation on the blog of a woman who corresponded with Margaret Vail for some years. Lindsley Rinard’s blog Literature and Life has several posts, here and here, concerning Margaret Vail’s memoir and Robert’s return.

Robert was released after five years in prison camp. Margaret and Rose-Hélène returned to France in time to greet him upon his return, and the family settled down on the family estate to put their lives back in order after the terrible disruption of the war.

In the great scheme of things and in comparison of what many others went through, one feels that these people were in general rather fortunate. As I have already said, this is a unique perspective not often seen, an account of someone who was placed in a rather good way to deal with the occupation of one’s homeland by a hostile force. Margaret Vail seized every advantage she could identify in her efforts to keep herself and her loved ones secure, though she never resorted to anything like “collaboration”, as so many others were moved by circumstances to do.

yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 back cover war bonds appea 001

From the back cover of the dust jacket of “Yours is the Earth”, a War Bonds appeal.



Read Full Post »

the sea-gull cry robert nathan 001The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ 1942. This edition: Knopf, 1942. Softcover, with French flaps. First edition. 214 pages.

My rating: 3/10

A short, lightweight novella by the onetime-popular Robert Nathan. I confess that I have in the past read and quite enjoyed his most famous publication, 1940’s Portrait of Jennie (see condensed spoiler-laden précis here), but The Sea-Gull Cry is infinitely more sentimental, and, to be brutally honest, not particularly memorable, either in plot or in execution.

Nineteen-year-old Louisa and her seven-year-old brother Jeri are refugees newly in America, from war-torn Poland via England. Children of an English mother and a Polish nobleman, they are in reality a countess and count, but the family castle has been bombed, leaving their mother interned forever in its rubble, while Papa has perished defending his country against the evil German invaders.

Louisa and Jeri are bravely making a new sort of life for themselves. Desiring to get out of the crowded American city they arrived at some short time ago, they have taken their refugee relief money and are looking for a place to live along the seaside for the summer. They make it to Cape Cod, where they fall in with a gruff-mannered but hearts-of-gold older couple, the Baghots, who rent them an abandoned scow beached on an isolated stretch of sand.

Onto this strip of sand precipitously arrives one “Smith”, a jaded, middle-aged history teacher, (and a not very experienced sailor), who has just purchased an old sloop with the view to cruising up and down the coast for the summer, to escape from the stress of his unsatisfying job and the pervasive gloom of the situation in Europe. (The story is set just before American entry into World War II.)

Smith is caught up in a squall and violently beaches his boat, putting an end to his summer plans. But when he meets lovely Louisa he is immediately smitten; even more so when she pops out of her faded blue overalls to swim in a teeny tiny homemade bikini. Smith feels that maybe life isn’t so dull after all…but wait…why would Louisa look at a man old enough to be her father…?

Maybe because she is seeking something of a father-substitute, a romantically-older man?

It takes them a few chapters to get it all worked out, chapters in which small Jeri provides a side plot as he fights with the local children, makes friends with the Baghots’ young niece Meg, and has a brush with death as he sets out to sea with Meg on an old raft, seeking to sail back to Europe to rescue “the children” from the conflict.

Aw, how sweet.


A little of that goes a very long way, and luckily this was a lightning fast read, being presented by the publisher with a large font, immense margins, and thick paper. It clocks in at 214 pages, but could probably quite happily fit onto 50 or so. (One speculates therefore that this was before any sort of wartime paper restrictions hit the American publishing market.)

That’s it; that’s the story; well whitewashed with slosh.

I don’t quite get Robert Nathan’s obvious popularity in his time, because this was pretty sub-par stuff in the great scheme of literature-of-the time, unless it was as a writer of escape-lit-light for the stressed-out housewives of the 1940s and 50s. The Sea-Gull’s Cry seems the sort of thing that would be found serialized in the Good Housekeeping type of magazine of the day.

A contemporary review by Rose Feld of The New York Times had this to say:

‘The Sea-Gull Cry’ tells a tale that will hold you until the last page is turned. It will hold you because of Nathan’s rare art of drawing you into his own mood of tender contemplation of human beings and because you cannot let them go until you know what happens to them… And you will decide that this is more than a tender little love story exquisitely written; that it is a tale of exile and valor and spiritual rebellion that has more than surface significance.

I suspect I am myself a bit too jaded and cynical to really appreciate this sort of fiction; I find myself lifting an eyebrow when I read these other quotes by the author himself regarding his authorial motivation:

What I really want is to give comfort to people in this wilderness of death and trouble. And to myself, too. So, when I can, I take the poison and hate out of my books; but I hate, just the same. I hate violence, and tyranny, and vulgarity. I hate despair and destruction, and the writers who insist that that is all there is, there isn’t anything else.


It seems to me that I have always wanted to say the same things in my books: that life is one, that mystery is all around us, that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all spread out in the pattern of eternity, together, and that although love may wear many faces in the incomprehensible panorama of time, in the heart that loves it is always the same.

Fair enough; Nathan’s readers obviously responded to his style.

As you can see from my brutal rating, I didn’t.



Read Full Post »

I’m getting back on the posting pony, after having been tumbled to the ground by recent events, and aren’t I lucky this morning, because look at this! – I found a draft post from mid-May that I never did publish. I think I was going to add a Bill Bryson (I’m a Stranger Here Myself) to the line-up, but I’m sure no one will mind giving my thoughts on Our Mr. Bryson a miss (short verdict: in general, I like his stuff quite a lot), because he’s hardly under-reviewed and I haven’t anything new and stunning to say about his earnestly (relentlessly?) humorous ramblings.

Quickie reviews only, I’m afraid, but operating on the premise that a little something is better than nothing, here we go.

pied piper nevil shutePied Piper by Nevil Shute ~ 1942. This edition: Heinemann, 1962. Hardcover. 303 pages.

My rating: 9/10

A ripping yarn, indeed, and typical of Nevil Shute at his best.

Elderly (70-ish) John Howard, not needed for war-related work due to his age, and mourning the loss of his pilot son in the early days of the Second World War, decides to take a quiet fishing trip to eastern France, despite the menacing activities of the German forces in other parts of Europe. Unwittingly caught out by the swiftness of the unstoppable German invasion, Howard finds himself escorting two young English children in an increasingly desperate attempt to return to England. His entourage increases child by child as he collects various waifs and strays, as well as a young French woman who has an unexpected connection to the Howard family.

The coast is reached, and transport across the Channel seems to be coming together nicely when the local Nazi commander intercepts Howard and accuses him of espionage – a charge which carries a brutal penalty…

A fast-moving story with a slightly unusual cast of characters. The children are mostly believable, and John Howard himself is the epitome of quiet heroism. The invading Nazis are brutish and brutal, in between their attempts at placating the locals by benevolent establishment of soup kitchens and the like; the English who are caught in the turmoil are universally likeable and high-minded; the French locals are mostly portrayed as a combination of bovinely stoic, and (paradoxically) boldly sly.

Pied Piper is rather obviously (and expectedly so given its time of writing) something of a fervent propaganda novel, celebrating as it does the sterling nature of the British Everyman in the face of the Teutonic War Machine, but with enough departure from the clichés here and there to keep it engaging. Nevil Shute brushes over some vital details as he keeps his story moving right along, but those he includes add clarity and verisimilitude to this gripping and very readable tale.

something wholesale eric newbySomething Wholesale by Eric Newby ~1962. This edition (revised 1970 and 1985): Picador, 1985. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-00-736751-1. 228 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Ever since a teaser in the early part of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush I have been deeply curious as to Eric Newby’s “time in the rag trade”, as he so facetiously terms his years as a apprentice of sorts in the family business, Lane and Newby Limited, a wholesale women’s fashion house situated in London. By the time Eric darkened its door in 1945, after his return to England after a traumatic wartime of special forces service, time on the run from capture, and prison camp incarceration (see Love and War in the Apennines/When the snow comes they will take you away), the once-thriving business was in the first stages of what would prove to be its death throes.

The rationing of cloth was still in effect for some years after the end of the war, and this created serious difficulties for Great Britain’s dress-making firms, but of more serious impact was the resurgence of the very competitive French fashion houses, in particular Dior, whose hyper-feminine New Look (incidentally requiring vast yardages to make up, putting the struggling English firms at a severe logistical disadvantage) was a jaw-dropping success on the 1947 haute couture scene.

As Eric becomes more and more enmeshed in the garment trade – quite literally, as one will learn from the anecdotes in Something Wholesale – he records with a keen eye to detail the absurdities of that arcane world, and the many eccentric characters he came up against, from flirtatious “outsize” models intent on playing under-the-table footsie with the boss’s son (Eric, of course), to various department store buyers, commercial travellers and contract seamstresses.

In general I enjoyed this memoir, though the humour is of the determined type and not particularly funny after a certain point – pseudonymous names such as Throttle and Fumble (a retailer of Lane and Newby’s output), and the Misses Axhead and Stallybrass being examples of the sort of heavy-handed fun which Eric Newby resorts to for much of the book.

But here and there the narrative strikes pure gold, and some bits are sarcastic gems of prose and really quite perfect. And though he refuses to be completely serious for much of the tale, Eric Newby’s ultimately loving depiction of his parents and their dedication to the firm is perhaps the most gentle and poignant aspect of this uneven memoir.

Lane and Newby went down for the third and final time in 1956, winding up its affairs after the death of Eric’s father, but Eric himself stayed employed in the garment business until 1963 – taking off for an occasional expedition during holidays and writing the odd book and magazine article here and there in his spare time – when he finally managed to find full-time employment in a career much more suited to his tale-telling aptitude, journalism.

Read Full Post »

beowulf bryher 001Beowulf by Bryher ~ 1948. This edition: Pantheon, 1956. Hardcover. 201 pages.

Provenance: Purchased (via ABE) from Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon – March 2014.

My rating: 9.5/10

This is a beautifully framed and constructed capture of a brief and bleak moment in time, focussing on a few ordinary people over a few short days in the midst of World War II’s London Blitz.

Selina Tippett, for twenty years a paid companion to a series of querulous old ladies, had at long last achieved her dream, that of operating a comforting teashop supplying nourishing and delicious refreshments to those most in need of a peaceful break in their stressful lives. For seven years the Warming Pan has been a haven for the harried housewives, elderly shoppers and frazzled governesses of this small corner of London, but times are increasingly difficult, and Selina is in a state of quiet desperation.

The bombs rain down, and her loyal customers are quietly fading away, either through the dismal fate of sudden death from the sky, or the more insidious process of quiet evacuation to the countryside. The Warming Pan’s once abundant selection of teacakes has dwindled to a mere shadow of past glories as rationing is in full force; Selena has just been informed that she may no longer buy fresh eggs for her baking, and she is ineligible for powdered eggs because she has never used them before and hence has no entitlement to a rationed allowance. The rent is months overdue; Selina receives each day’s post with trepidation, expecting an eviction notice. What will the future bring…?

Selina’s partner Angelina refuses to share Selina’s concerns. Girded for battle with her strong sense of righteousness, Angelina goes forth daily to enthusiastically do battle with the bureaucracy of the Food Ministry and her wide circle of provision merchants. In her free hours, Angelina is an aficionado of various evening courses; she is a keen autodidact and fierce feminist with a special interest in improving the position of women in society.

When Angelina brings home a hideous plaster statue of a  bulldog – christened “Beowulf” in a gesture of symbolic nose-thumbing at the disturbers of England’s peace – Selina tries to hide her inner anger at the fact that it was paid for with money intended for the gas bill and the fishmonger. But as Selina’s sense of foreboding increases hour by hour, fate is preparing a climactic solution (of sorts) to her most urgent problems…

Much more than a simply linear narrative, this novel is a spiral series of vignettes, all connected at the centre to the Warming Pan and the people who cross its threshold and find refuge within its threatened walls.

Short but quite perfect; an excellent reading experience. Though the subject matter is desperately sad, the novel is quietly and genuinely humorous, and not at all depressing.

Half a point lost because I wanted more, and the ending solved a key problem just a little too neatly.

Bryher was the pen-name of British novelist and poet Annie Winifred Ellerman. A keen historian and amateur archeologist (as well as the daughter of “England’s wealthiest man”, shipping magnate John Ellerman), she wrote a number of well-researched, well-written and well-reviewed historical novels focussing on various periods in England’s history, such as The Fourteenth of October (the year of 1066), and The Player’s Boy (Beaumont and Fletcher at the end of the Elizabethan period). She also dabbled in writing science fiction in 1965’s Visa for Avalon, and was well known for her strongly eclectic interests and her steadfast support of the literary and creative arts.

An author very much worthy of further investigation.

Read Full Post »

I’ve just finished something of a mini-binge of World War II-era spy thrillers, with the first two of what would turn into a handsome list of espionage and suspense thrillers by Helen MacInnes.

Above Suspicion was the first, and published in 1941 in the opening moves of what was to become the prolonged agony of the Second Great War, its urgent and foreboding tone rocketed it to bestseller heights. MacInnes followed her first novel by another even more topically urgent and dark, Assignment in Brittany, in 1942.

Though definitely dated, these suspense novels are decidedly still very readable today, made even more enthralling by the fact that we know what happened in the years after, while MacInnes and her heroic characters are facing a tremendous and forbidding Great Unknown. I’m going to give brief sketches of both in two hundred word snapshots, if I can condense them so tightly – with the strong recommendation that you discover these for yourself if you feel that these might be your thing. These two novels are excellent examples of their genre, though highly dramatized and relying upon those inevitable unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks in order to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Though neither has an ending that is neatly rounded off; the settings and times don’t allow it.

I have read Above Suspicion numerous times through the years, but Assignment in Brittany was new to me, and I was pleased at how engaging both of these were, even though in the first I knew the plot inside and out, and the second I guessed at rather successfully all of the way through, except for the rather heartrending (but ultimately optimistic) twist at the very end.

Both books were immediate bestsellers, and remain very readable – and continually in print –  almost seventy-five years after their first publication.

above suspicion helen macinnes 001 (2)

“Because of the acute shortage of regular book cloth under war-time rationing, this book is bound in ‘leatherette,’ a sturdy paper fabric especially designed for this purpose.”

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ 1941. This edition: Triangle Books, 1944. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Young Oxford University don Richard Myles and his wife Frances are recruited to travel to Europe during summer break in order to discover what has happened to a possibly-compromised chain of British secret service agents. The premise being that the two are so innocent-seeming as to be able to wander at will, from agent to agent, following the links as identified at each contact. In their travels they run in and out of numerous sinister encounters; the Nazis are very much on the ascendant and their evil shadow looms over the lands the Myles visit on their journeyings.

above suspicion helen macinnes  old dj 001 (2)

This dramatic vintage dust jacket illustration illustrates one of the peak moments of this suspense thriller, as the heroine is attacked by the Head Evil Nazi’s killer dog and is rescued by quick deployment of her husband’s handy-dandy sword-stick. Imminently distressing dispatch of the hound aside, isn’t this a gorgeous bit of graphic design?

A novel made most poignant by the time of writing; the last months of peacetime shadowed by foreboding clouds of war. The author draws upon personal experience in telling her tale, and it is an interesting combination of travelogue and suspense thriller, full of asides describing the scenes in which the action is set, and philosophical musings regarding the whys and wherefores of the imminent conflict. The German psyche is searchingly probed by a very British analyst – MacInnes in the guise of her heroic (and autobiographical) married couple – and found to be both blustering and chillingly focussed on military dominion.

assignment in brittany dj helen macinnes 001

I am fortunate enough to be the possessor of this handsomely dust-jacketed first American edition. An absolutely stellar example of vintage cover art. Wouldn’t this make an amazing wall poster?

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ 1942. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1942. Hardcover. 373 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Martin Hearne is parachuted into Brittany, into the very forefront of the Nazi occupation, in the guise of  his French body double, Bertrand Corlay. Many surprises await Hearne, not least of which is the discovery that his predecessor was less than forthcoming about some of his own activities before his evacuation to England via the Dunkirk debacle. For instance, his pre-marital arrangement with the neighbouring farmer’s daughter, Anne, and his estrangement from his invalid mother, who keeps strictly to her own rooms in the shared household. Who is beautiful and passionately forthcoming Elise? Why do the Nazi occupiers greet “Bertrand Corlay” with warm enthusiasm, while his fellow villagers hiss in cold disgust?

An escaping American journalist sheltering in the Corlay home sets off a string of complications, most notably a dramatic trip to the medieval monastic stronghold of Mont St. Michel, situated at the end of a causeway above tidal flats of quicksand. A return to the Corlay home finds Hearne confronted by steely-eyed Teutons who have discovered their collaborator is not what he seems, in so very many ways. Will Hearne make it back to England with his meticulously written notes and maps, as well as his new-found love?

Good dramatic stuff, rather nicely plotted for its type of thing, though with an exceedingly strong reliance on Hand of Coincidence. The evil Boche are given no ground, and the resident Bretons are depicted as cunning and stubborn survivors, insular to an astounding degree, but in the main resistant to their unwelcome occupiers by a combination of sullen non-cooperation and occasional acts of secret sabotage.

An engaging period thriller, written at the time it depicts, and so a valuable snapshot of the mood and details of its moment in time as well as a very readable diversion.

helen macinnes bio dj assignment in brittany dj 001

Author biography from the back cover of “Assignment in Brittany.” Check out the casual cigarette! No doubt the other hidden hand is nonchalantly holding a martini glass…

Read Full Post »

the sun in scorpio margery sharp 001The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp ~ 1965. This edition: Heinemann, 1965. Hardcover. 231 pages.

My rating: 10/10.

She does it again.

Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about Margery Sharp’s eclectic style, she pulls something new out of the hat. This is an absolutely crisp, clean and elegantly written novel, by a master of her craft, with some attention-catching stylings. I  suspect the author was enjoying herself quietly and deeply while working this out, based as it is on her memories of her childhood years in Malta.

Nice. Very, very, nice.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a few weeks now, waiting for an inspired moment to sit down and really delve into this book, but things are picking up speed in my real life and computer time for blogging is getting a bit pinched, so it’s looking like now or never. A quickie review it will have to be.

Everything sparkled.

Below the low stone wall, beyond the rocks, sun-pennies danced on the blue Mediterranean; so dazzlingly, they could be looked at only between dropped lashes. (In 1913, the pre-sunglass era, light was permitted to assault the naked eye.) Opposite, across the road called Victoria Avenue, great bolts of sunlight struck at the white stone buildings and richocheted off the windows. A puff of dust was a puff of gold-dust, an orange spilled from a basket like a wind-fall from the Hesperides…

Young Cathy Pennon, middle child of three growing up on an outpost of the grand British Empire, on the small island “next-door” to Malta, glories in the sun and basks in its rays. She is soon to leave the scene of her young years, as the growing winds of the Great War unsettle her civilian parents enough to urge a return to safer England. Cathy is soon to discover that she never will be truly warm again; the rainy isle of “Home” being resistant in its mists to the heat of that lost-and-mourned Mediterranean sun.

We follow Cathy, and to a lesser degree, her older sister Muriel and younger brother Alan, as they grow up in England, move into their adult years, and go their separate ways. Muriel is to find a comfortable niche in married domesticity; Alan settles into a happy bachelor existence while dedicating himself to the banking business – he is, ultimately tragically, of just the age to be destined to fight in the next great war – and Cathy drifts into a loosely-defined position as companion-lady’s maid to the aristocratic Lady Jean.

The book is a delicious moving picture of the years of and between the wars; our author touches delicately but succinctly on the many personalities and types of those years of tremendous flux, when the world is continually shaking itself and forming itself again as its inhabitants struggle, with various degrees of success, to come to grips with every new normal.

Cathy survives, though not without some scars, and we leave her at the end of the Second Great War poised for what looks to be the greatest change yet in her four decades of life, contemplating with wild surmise and growing joy the possibility of a return to the sun.

What a very good book this is. Margery Sharp is in absolutely fine form, having created a crisp, clean narrative with beautiful styling and more than a little cynically black ink in her accomplished pen. Cathy is a most human protagonist; full of flaws and not at all likeable a certain amount of the time; she tends to stand back a step from those around her, never fully entering in to the lives of those she bumps up against. A girl and then a woman of unexpected responses, and a few hidden talents…

Read Full Post »

the english air d e stevenson 001The English Air by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940. This edition: Farrar and Rinehart, 1940. Hardcover. 317 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I liked this novel a lot. It’s hard to believe it was written at the roughly the same time as the melodramatic Crooked Adam (1942), as it is a much more sober and thoughtful sort of thing, reflective no doubt of the author’s own musings in the years leading up to the start of World War II. It is wonderfully atmospheric from start to finish, and the characters pleased me greatly, from the gorgeous blonde Aryan “super-man” and ex-Hitler Youth Franz to fluffy-but-ultimately-wise Sophie and fragile-seeming but tough-as-nails Wynne.

This book is fairly common, and I don’t want to spoil it for those of you still to read it, so I’ll keep this review brief and avoid any spoilers.

It is the spring of 1938, and half-German, half-English Franz has suddenly invited himself to stay with his English semi-cousins, the Braithwaites. No one is quite sure what to make of Franz’s out-of-the-blue advances, and when he arrives their initial reaction is uneasy. Franz is a tall young golden-haired “Greek god” figure of a man, with stiffly formal manners and no apparent sense of humour. After the initial whispered consultations: “I wonder if he’s a Nazi? Don’t talk about politics!” everyone unbends a bit, and as the days pass Franz is seen to make a real effort to find common ground with his English hosts.

Especially lovely Wynne, the Braithwaite daughter, who has been tenaciously trying to get through Franz’s Teutonic reserve while educating him in the niceties of the English sense of humour, common slang, and recognition of and appropriate responses to friendly teasing.

But Dane Worthington, Wynne’s uncle, who has been her legal guardian since her father’s untimely death, cocks a cynical eyebrow in Franz’s direction. Why is he really so keen to immerse himself in English domestic life? For Dane knows, through certain connections of his own, that Franz’s father is a highly-placed official in the Nazi party, and one of Hitler’s personal advisers.

There are many secrets afoot, this golden last summer of peace before the start of the war…

A rather nicely plotted story – though we do get some major clues throughout as to what is really going on – and well up there in D.E. Stevenson’s oeuvre. The themes are serious and treated with respect without being dreary; in places this one reads rather like an O. Douglas novel, unsensational and matter-of-fact, and deeply appealing in a quietly memorable way. Occasionally things slip into melodrama, but all in all the author does a grand job here; it is one of my new favourites of the many DES stories I’ve now read.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s discussion of patriotism, and thought it well-balanced and insightful, though by the time of the writing of Crooked Adam in 1942 the mood had obviously changed to something much more reactive and extreme, on both sides of the ongoing conflict.

The English Air was finished in February, 1940, and, as well as being a diverting light novel, is an intriguing eyewitness snapshot of a specific time and place in the last year of peace and the first year of war.

Read Full Post »

12285312The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams ~ 1949. This edition: Collins, 1949. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

It was January when they had first come to Stalag-Luft III, and for the whole of that month the ground was under snow. Snow lay thickly on the roofs of the barracks blocks and gave an air of gaiety to the barbed wire which sparkled and glittered in the sun. Every post carried its cap of crisp, powdery snow, and when the wind blew, the snow drifted up against the coiled wire, softening its gauntness. Escape in this weather was impossible, and when the snow stopped falling the prisoners made a bobsleigh run and cut up their bed-boards to make toboggans. They flooded the football pitch and made an ice rink on which they skated from morning until evening. The camp was pure and clean while the snow lay on the ground, and the air loud with the shouts of the skaters. It was only when the night carts came to empty the aborts that the compound became offensive, and then the air was malodorous and long yellow streaks marked the snow where the carts had been.

When the thaw came the camp was a sea of mud. The packed ice of the toboggan run was the last to melt, and the skating rink was a miniature lake on which a few enthusiasts sailed their home-made yachts. Then that dried up and the football pitch was reconditioned. The goalposts were replaced and the earth dams that had held the water were removed.

With the spring came a renewed interest in escape. Spring is the escaping season…

Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Peter Howard, shot down over Germany in 1942, is on his second prison camp. He and fellow officer John Clinton had already tunnelled out of their first camp, Oflag XXI-B, but were recaptured only a few days later. Now they are pondering the possibilities of surreptitiously leaving Stalag-Luft II, the massive internment camp purpose-built and maintained by the Luftwaffe for captured flight crews. (This officers-only camp eventually housed over 10,000 POWs. For an excellent description of Stalag-Luft III, see this extensive Wikipedia article.)

Escaping from Stalag-Luft III had so far been impossible. Built on sandy soil, with distinctly coloured subsoil making disposal of tunnelling debris extremely difficult to disguise, the camp buildings were constructed on pilings, with guard dogs patrolling the compound after dark, and a system of foot patrols and random spotlighting to prevent any prisoner activity under cover of darkness. Due to the prevalence of prisoners attempting to escape by tunnelling, microphones capable of picking up seismographic vibrations had been installed around the perimeter of the camp.

Conditions inside the camp were reputed to be among the most “lavish” in any of the German-run POW camps. Because the detainees were officers, they were not required to perform forced labour under the terms of the Geneva Convention, and were provided with regular Red Cross food and relief parcels, which included cigarettes and toiletries. Many of the POWs were taking correspondence-style university courses, and recreation opportunities within the camp – sports, theatre, music – were well organized and highly attended.

So why even try to escape, and risk being shot? Many of the captured British airmen were quite content to put up with the boredom of being interned, grateful to be in a relatively comfortable camp, but for others the idea of being held in detention was maddening. Their one focus was on getting out and away back to England, from where they could renew their active participation in the war.


A re-creation of the vaulting horse in the 1950 movie version of the book.

Howard and Clinton come up with an ingenious plan, inspired by the traditional “Trojan Horse”, to start a tunnel close to the perimeter fence and so lessen the distance needed for excavation. They design a wooden vaulting horse, in which at first one and then later two and three men can be hidden and carried, and proceed to establish a regular routine of gymnastic exercises at their chosen tunnel head. With the cooperation and assistance of numerous fellow prisoners, the continuous vaulting, jumping, landing and related calisthenics created enough vibration that the tunneling noise was disguised from the microphones. Bags of excavated sand, made from the cut-off legs of prisoners’ pants, were hung on hooks inside the horse, to be removed and surreptitiously scattered in innocuous locations, and eventually, as it was harder to dispose off without being spotted, in the ceilings of the dormitories.

The Wooden Horse describes the escape plan in great detail, and makes fascinating reading. The ingenuity of the prisoners is admirable, as is the camp organization which coordinated escape attempts. A hidden stockpile of altered clothing, forged papers, German money and condensed food rations was assembled through various efforts, to be allotted to those who had made a plausible case to the Escape Committee.

Howard and Clinton, along with a third officer, Phillip Rowe, are the first and as it turns out, the only prisoners to successfully escape from Stalag-Luft III and to return to their home country. Every other escape attempt, of which there were many, including the famous “Great Escape”  of 1944 documented by writer Paul Brickhill, ended in recapture and, in the case of the Great Escape, execution of many of the escapees.


Michael Codner, Oliver Philpot, and Eric Williams

In The Wooden Horse, the fictionalized version of events written by participant Eric Williams, ‘Peter Howard’ is Eric himself,  ‘John Clinton’ is Michael Codner, and ‘Philip Rowe’ is Oliver Philpot. All three men returned to active service after their return to England.

An extremely interesting book, containing as it does such intensive detail concerning life in an officers’ POW camp, and vivid descriptions of life in civilian Germany midway through the war as the men blend in with the population during their journey toward the seaport where they hope to find transport out of the country.

The story is well-told, though events here and there which are really quite dramatic are told in an offhand sort of manner, with the exception of a brutal encounter with a German guard at the very end of the narrative, which stands out by its dramatic and gory details. This incident was later revealed to be fabricated at the request of the book’s publisher, in order to “spice up” the ending. Everything else, though, appears to be quite true.

A must-read for anyone at all interested in World War II history, for its extensive detail and its business-as-usual, “sure-we-did-amazing-things-but-why-all-the-fuss?” tone, keeping that British “stiff upper lip” stereotype nicely polished. What emotion is shown is in the realistic depiction of the nerve-wracking journey across Germany and into occupied Denmark, and the stressful situation at being completely at the mercy of randomly-met strangers who may or may not be willing to pass along information or messages, and any of whom might be in collaboration with the German officials.

All in all, a good read.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »