The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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After my marathon month of reading galleys for the Fabulous Fall Reads presentation I gave at the library yesterday, I needed something absorbing, old-fashioned and satisfying to sink into – and I definitely found that with this novel. The Light Years is one of those books that is complete and total cozy comfort reading – but comfort reading that is very insightful, has realistic, well-drawn characters, is observant and funny. Lots of people are just now discovering Elizabeth Jane Howard, probably because after she died last year there was a flurry of interest in her books. Hilary Mantel wrote a passionate endorsement, which certainly got me interested in reading her, and lately Rachel from Book Snob, has urged us to give EJH, and specifically the Cazalet Chronicles, a try on the Tea or Books? podcast.

The Light Years is essentially a family saga featuring the Cazalet family – Brig and the Duchy, their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. This first novel in the five part series begins in 1937 and ends just as summer is waning in 1938. In this book we’re introduced to all the members of the family, their struggles, fears, joys and interests. The looming war influences a lot of the action and interior thoughts of a majority of the characters, but they’re also plagued by such human concerns as aging, unwanted pregnancy, school hatred, infidelity, forbidden love, illness, etc. It’s absolutely riveting and I so enjoyed losing myself in the lives of this complex family.

I started the second book in the series, Marking Time, the day after I finished this but I had to drag myself away in order to speed read My Cousin Rachel for book club on Tuesday (which is not a hardship, I admit). As soon as I’m finished, though, I’m right back into the lives of the Cazalet clan.

Have you read Elizabeth Jane Howard and the Cazalet Chronicles?

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

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In Crooked Heart we’re placed right in the middle of WWII-era London during the Blitz. Ten-year-old Noel is an orphan who’s been evacuated to the home of Vee Sedgwick, a woman who just can’t seem to get it together. She can’t hold down a job, makes enemies of her neighbors, and none of her money-making schemes yield results. When Noel enters her life she at first doesn’t see him as anything but a way to make ends meet (by using his ration card) and Noel sees her as something to be endured. Yet as the chaos of war upsets everything around them, even family ties and familiar surroundings, Vee and Noel create a bond that withstands the turmoil. This funny novel explores the dark side of the home front yet is ultimately heartfelt and endearing.

I loved this one! Thanks to Darlene for encouraging me to read it.

AV/AA in Brief

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I truly enjoyed taking a break from galleys in August to focus on reading Persephones and Viragos. I didn’t read as many as I planned to, but I think five is a respectable number (I’m including Anderby Wold, which I previously posted about). Instead of trying catch up with individual posts about the remaining four novels I’m briefly capturing each one here:

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes – This is a remarkable suspense novel published in 1963 that deals with the still sadly relevant issue of how the police treat black suspects and how the fear of false arrest and mistreatment psychologically impacts those suspects. Reading it was so tense and disconcerting – it’s perfectly paced to create a maximum feeling of complete anxiety. The novel is set in Phoenix (where I live) and it was fascinating to read about the city in the early sixties. There aren’t many novels set in Arizona so I found it particularly absorbing. This book was recently featured on the Persephone Forum.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita LaskiLittle Boy Lost is another really great psychologically tense novel about an English man who reluctantly tries to locate his missing child in France after the end of WWII. It’s an effort not to skip forward to see how this turns out and when the end does come it is utterly haunting.

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild Saplings is set during WWII and tells the story of how the war affects four young children, all siblings, as the vicissitudes of fortune through the years change their circumstances and very personalities. It’s quite affecting and terribly sad and I found myself worrying and wondering about them long after I’d finished the novel.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – After reading the gut wrenching Persephones it was refreshing to read this funny, messy and kooky novel set among a group of artists in London during the thirties. Not that bad things don’t happen here – they do, and some really pretty things awful too, but Comyns has a way of making dire poverty, marital troubles, a horrific childbirth experience, depression, death and displacement seem like a grand adventure.

What a wonderful month of reading I had!

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Copies at my local Barnes & Noble.

I had no plans to read this book. I usually stay away from the overly hyped books of the year, not so much because I think they’ll be a fraud, but because it’s so hard to get my hands on a copy and they usually don’t seem worth giving up a precious spot on my holds list for. This one, though, kept calling my name so I put a hold on my library’s digital copy. I got the notification of its availability on a day when I was between books and as soon as I started reading it I knew it was going to be a wonderful journey.

The novel uses a dual narrative that alternates between the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, and Werner, a German boy who lives in a Catholic orphanage in a depressed mining town. Their lives before the war are ripe with discovery and curiosity: Marie-Laure about whelks and other shelled creatures, Werner about science and radios in particular. As conflict between the two nations approaches Werner is recruited into the Hitler Youth and sent to a school to learn how to be a perfect soldier and his skill with radios is utilized to further the efforts of discovering resistance broadcasts in Russia and Poland.

When the German army marches into Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee and turn up in Saint- Malo at the home of her great-uncle Etienne, a man still suffering from the trauma of serving in WWI who is also obsessed with radios. Marie-Laure’s father constructs detailed, miniature models of the walled city to teach her how to navigate the streets and alleyways on her own though she is rarely let out into the occupied city. Madame Manec (my favorite character in the novel), her uncle’s caretaker, handles the intricacies of finding food, complying with curfews and orders and sharing information with the neighbors. She also recruits her female friends into resistance efforts by partaking in small rebellions like baking loaves of bread that conceal secret communiques that they pass along to key resistance figures, efforts that Marie-Laure also supports.

In August of 1944 after living for years under occupation Saint-Malo is bombed by American planes. Amazingly, the paths of Werner and Marie-Laure finally intertwine amid fire and destruction. Doerr seamlessly brings these two incredible characters together through a series of believable coincidences that underlie the plot.

The writing is incredibly lyrical with beautiful imagery and a perfect, understated tone. Describing both living under occupation in France and serving in the occupying German army brilliantly shows the humanity of both sides and doesn’t demonize the Germans or glorify the French. The emotions, decisions and motives of the characters are complex and layered as is this story. There are many, many levels of enchantment here, too many to mention, and the way they combine makes a gorgeous, robust novel. I was completely engrossed and am happy that this was the last book I read in 2014. I ended the year on a high note, indeed.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See?

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

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“Did the old man die here? What do you think?” Julia asked, as her husband began to come upstairs.

One Christmas break when I was in college I house sat for a neighbor while she was on vacation. For two weeks I slept in her bed, cooked in her kitchen, watched her tv,  read on her porch and snuggled with her dogs. It was nice to be on my own and to have a break from my roommates, but it was also a bit uncomfortable to inhabit a relative stranger’s home and unsettling to live among objects that were not my own. In Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s the Davenant family experiences much the same uneasiness.

Towards the end of the second world war Roddy Davenant is transferred to a new town (he’s in the RAF) and moves his wife Julia, son Oliver and cousin Eleanor into a rented home that belongs to Mrs. Lippincote. All of her furniture and belongings are left behind in the house and Julia and Eleanor set about setting up a home in these borrowed surroundings. The plot follows the characters as they question their lives and learn things about each other that change their relationships and family dynamic, mostly not for the good.

Julia is a remarkable character, a woman who is private, harsh and blunt yet a romantic. She doesn’t suffer fools, but she has a soft heart that leads her to connect with unlikely people. Roddy is your typical husband and soldier of this era and, though she loves him, she has no interest in playing the role of the typical wife and conflict ensues. Add to this mix Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, a single middle-aged woman who takes up with a band of Communists and conceals the friendship from Roddy who will not approve. Basically, the women in this novel rebel, perhaps because they don’t feel comfortable or in control of their own home.

Julia’s relationship with her young son Oliver is also rocky as he is precocious and sickly with a huge appetite for books (he’s seven and has read Jane Eyre) and causes her much worry and resentment. Their relationship, though, is really charming and I loved reading about Oliver’s favorite books and their conversations about his reading. It is one of the most delightful parts of the novel especially when Roddy’s boss, the Wing Commander, joins in the discussion.

Taylor’s writing continues to feel stiff to me and not easy to read, but reading her short stories alerted me to her style so I was ready for this novel. If you don’t like short stories and want to read her I would suggest this as a first try because it is short and not as hard to get into as some of her other novels that I’ve tried.

From what I’ve read to this point I’d say that her books are full of subversive women. They may not march down the middle of main street to protest the mistreatment, disrespect and boredom they endure, but they certainly act out in small ways within their own spheres. I am intrigued by them and will continue to read Taylor to meet more of these interesting women.

Other thoughts:

The Captive Reader

Harriet Devine

Heavenali

Stuck in a Book

Will you try Elizabeth Taylor?

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

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I bought a copy of this 1940 edition of Mrs. Miniver about a year ago, but only chose to read it after I read that it is one of the books that most inspires Jane Brocket (in her book The Gentle Art of Domesticity ). The book is constructed of short, comic chapters that were originally published as newspaper articles in The Times in the late ’30’s as war was approaching. Most of the chapters present a domestic scene, episodes concerning Mrs. Miniver’s housekeeping, children or husband, but there are some travel narratives also and a very chilling scene describing the household getting fitted for gas masks.

The writing is formal, a bit distant, but humorous and warm. Mrs. Miniver embodies the brave, cheerful woman who carries on in the face of an unknown future and was a symbol during the war, especially after the film was released. I think it is fascinating that President Roosevelt rushed the film into US theaters in 1942, that Americans were very taken with the book and that it was a huge success here – because I didn’t have a personal connection to the writing myself. I thought it was enjoyable, but not as powerful as it must have been at the time it was published.

I recently recorded the film and tried to watch it a few days after I finished reading Mrs. Miniver, but I couldn’t believe how different the film is from the book and had to stop watching. Have you read or watched Mrs. Miniver? If you’ve done both, which do you prefer – the book or the film?

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity, Hyperion, 2012

I’ve been dying to recommend this book to you. It is one of those books that I want to push into the hands of every reader I know. I’ve told quite a few people at the library about it and now I want to tell you all about it too.

Code Name Verity is the story of two courageous young women who risk their lives to further the cause of the Allies during World War II. Verity is a well-bred Scot with an Oxford education who is recruited by the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Her friend Maddie is a mechanically minded tomboy from the Manchester area who becomes a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Despite their differences,  their friendship and admiration for each other carry them through many trials and struggles during the early part of the war. In 1943 they journey to France on assignment and both end up behind enemy lines. Trapped and separated, they use their ingenuity and gumption to navigate the dangerous situation they’ve landed in.

I won’t say more about the plot as it is one of those stories that is best read when you know as little about the twists and turns as possible. But I will tell you that it is a magnificent wartime tale, a tale of friendship, bravery and sacrifice that had me laughing, smiling, weeping, quivering and pondering as I read about these two remarkable women. If you like reading books about World War II this is a must read. If you like stories about extraordinary friendships this is a must read. If you like tales of adventure and daring this is a must read. I have immense admiration for the historical accuracy and detail in this novel and for the way Wein completely brings the reality of the French resistance to life. And Verity and Maddie are two characters I came to love and will never forget and I hope you will come to love them too.

This book is marketed to and shelved in the young adult section of libraries and bookstores, but it is nowhere near being a typical YA novel. It can be enjoyed by readers of all ages and I suspect it may just be more appreciated by older ones.

Please give this a try if it is at all possible. I don’t think you’ll regret it.