Tag Archives: Second World War

Book review: All Change

Elizabeth Jane HowardA leap forward in time; the fourth book in The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard left us in 1947 but this, the last in the series, runs from June 1956 to December 1958. Much has changed in the 11 years after VE Day: Queen Elizabeth succeeds to the throne after the death of her father King George VI, there are eight million refugees within Germany’s borders, President Eisenhower is elected. And in the world of the Cazalets, The Duchy dies.

This final book is an examination of the nature of love that persists despite pain and trouble. The cousins experience difficulties in love – affairs, divorce, misguided attachments and betrayal – while their parents are fractured by the failure of the family timber business. Suddenly there is no money: houses must be sold, servants let go after years of service, meals cooked and houses cleaned without help. Family love persists through this dark time and, as throughout the war, the Cazalet family emerges out the other side, shaped differently for the next decade.

Reading the last book in a well-loved series is always a mixed feeling: delight and loss. So it is with wonder that I consider how Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote this final book of the series when she was 90, completing it before she died in January 2014.

Read my reviews of the first four books in The Cazalet Chronicles:-
The Light Years
Marking Time
Casting Off 
‘All Change’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles #5 [UK: Pan] Buy now

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Book review: Casting Off

Elizabeth Jane HowardJuly 1945. Hugh Cazalet, after the death of his wife Sybil, now suffers another loss as Miss Pearson, his secretary for 23 years, resigns. But the end of the European war is in sight. By the end of Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard, it is 1947, the war is over and there have been more engagements, marriages and divorces, births and deaths.

The title refers not just to ending relationships, but to letting go of war-time life. This is more complicated than anticipated. Longing for something for so long, does not make it easy to live through when it happens. Change is challenging. Post-war life is not all it is expected to be, in some ways it is harder.  Though the privations of rationing continue, often harsher than during the war itself, possibilities for new life unfold like a flower in bloom. But there are no easy answers.

The three cousins are grown-up– Polly, Louise and Clary now face life as young adults, their idealism tainted by the sadness and disappointments of war. But there are surprises in store for Clary, while the Cazalet brothers must make a business decision which affects the financial future of the whole family. Can they still afford the Sussex home, the anchor for the family throughout the war, and home to The Duchy and The Brig? And where will this extended war-time family now live, separated from one another?

Expecting happiness after the end of the war, ordinary life disappoints as the trials and disappointments continue. Louise’s friend Stella explains: “… when anyone becomes more than a certain amount unhappy they get cut off. They don’t feel any comfort or concern or affection that comes from other people – all of that simply disappears inside some bottomless pit and when people realize that, they stop trying to be affectionate or comforting. Would you like some grey coffee, or some pink-brown tea?”

Howard’s characters are so clearly drawn that they became real people for me, while I read these books. They feel like real friends. That is a huge achievement for any novelist.

Read my reviews of the first three books in The Cazalet Chronicles:-
The Light Years
Marking Time
‘Casting Off’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles #4 [UK: Pan] Buy now

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Book review: Confusion

Elizabeth Jane HowardThis, the third in the five-book series by Elizabeth Jane Howard which is The Cazalet Chronicles, covers March 1942 to July 1945, again we see the family’s experiences through the teenage eyes of Polly, Louise and Clary. Much has changed now as the war progresses, particularly affecting the role of women, the breakdown of class barriers, the empowerment of working women and educated poor.

These books are quite a social history of a period which more often is the reserve of thrillers and spy novels. Elizabeth Jane Howard has a subtle hand when it comes to observing relationship, such as Polly’s observation after her mother’s death: “It was possible to believe that she was gone; it was their not ever coming back that was so difficult.” Confusion is in part a study of the grief of Polly and her father Hugh; and that of Clary and Neville, whose father Rupert has disappeared in action in France. Clary continues to believe her father is still alive, though the rest of the family quietly accepts his death. Then word from France brings a sliver of hope. Clary grieves for the father she remembers as a child, writing a daily diary for him, and not as the soldier he died as.

The other theme in Confusion is love, or the lack of it. Louise’s story is not about death but about young love, expectations and marriage and the realization that her husband Michael is more strongly wedded to his mother Zee than to her. There are war-time affairs, some lust, some love, and with all of them comes the confusion of uncertain times, stress and the pressure of living life ‘now’.

War seems ordinary in the everyday sense, but the Cazalets are living through extra-ordinary times. The familiar characters continue from the first two books, their story arcs going through radical change now as the war progresses and everyone’s life is changed forever.

Read my reviews of The Light Years, the first book in The Cazalet Chronicles and the second, Marking Time.

If you like ‘Confusion’, try these other wartime novels:-
‘At Mrs Lippincote’s’ by Elizabeth Taylor
‘Freya’ by Anthony Quinn
‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook

‘Confusion’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles #3 [UK: Pan] Buy now

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Book review: Homeland

Clare FrancisNo, not the American TV series about Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, the thriller by British author Clare Francis. Francis is a proficient thriller writer, but it is some years since I last read one of her books: until I picked one at random off my shelf one day.

Homeland is set after World War Two in the quiet rural corner of England that is the Somerset Levels. A land of rising and ebbing water levels, and unworldly place of withies and willows. Into this walks Billy Greer on his return from the war, going back to the house of his uncle and aunt where he spent the difficult teenage years before the war. There, he finds the house and farm in disarray, his uncle dramatically aged, and his aunt upstairs confined to bed after a stroke. And he meets again the woman who made his spine tingle when they were both teenagers.

Will he stay to rebuild the farm, or will he go to the promised job in London. And what of Annie, the local girl he could not forget while he fought his way around Europe?

Underlying the telling of Billy’s story is that of the Polish soldiers, in a holding camp while they await either return to Poland or settlement in the UK. It is a difficult decision: their beloved country is unrecognizable and run by the Soviet Union, but they do not feel 100% welcome in England. Wladyslaw, a literature student who left university to join the Polish army, is an intellectual and a dreamer. But he takes a job working for Billy Greer, helping to set the rundown farm to rights. And there he meets local schoolteacher Stella who agrees to give him English lessons.

This feels like a quiet tale – and it is not a thriller in the ‘spy story’ definition – but it is a story which kept me turning the pages. There are many uncertainties: the future of the Poles, the various love triangles, locals and immigrants living alongside each other without a common language with inevitable arguments and misunderstandings. The denouement is not what I expected.

Having loved this, I now want to re-read Clare Francis’ other books. It is some time she has written anything, there’s a sad story about how she suffered an extreme form of writer’s block. To read more, click here.

If you like ‘Homeland’, try these thoughtful post-WW2 novels:-
‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook
‘The Translation of Love’ by Lynne Kutsukake
‘Freya’ by Anthony Quinn

‘Homeland’ by Clare Francis [UK: Macmillan] Buy now

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Book review: Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase

mrs sinclair's suitcase by louise walters 17-2-14Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books recommended this book to me and I am glad she did. This is a gentle mystery of a love affair during war and its consequences for the following generations.

We follow the stories of two women: Dorothy Sinclair in 1940, and today Roberta who works at The Old and New Bookshop. Roberta is particularly fond of the secondhand stock, treasuring the notes and letters she finds hidden within their pages, wondering about the stories of the writer and the addressee. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from such a note.

The letter which starts Chapter One is dated 1941 and addressed to “My dear Dorothea” from Jan Pietrykowski in which he writes he “cannot forgive” her for “what you do, to this child, to this child’s mother, it is wrong.” The letter makes no sense to Roberta as it was written by her grandfather to her grandmother, and dated 1941 when Jan died in 1940. This is the puzzle which Roberta must unravel. What woman does Jan refer to, and what child?

Dorothy’s story starts with a plane crash. She lives on the edge of an airfield deep in the quiet Lincolnshire countryside, alone in her cottage [her husband is away at war] which she shares with two land girls. The plane crash brings the Polish pilot to her door. Nervous, Dorothy serves afternoon tea. She “watched Jan take a bite from a sandwich. His teeth were small, even and white. She noticed the way his fingers curved lightly around the sandwich. He was an elegant man… She watched him eat and he seemed unabashed, eating under her scrutiny. She, for her part, always ate guardedly. She hated the way eating contorted her face, and it made her feel exposed.” From their first meeting, he unsettles her. She is so buttoned-up; he is open, curious and confident.

There is a lot of sensuality in this tale. Despite herself, Dorothy wonders about the pilot. She does not miss her husband. When Jan visits the cottage again, she notices his “brown, lean, strong forearms and realizes how she feels… His arms were poetry.” But there is grief too, as this is wartime and what happened in the 1940s knocks on down the decades to affect Roberta, her father and her grandmother Babunia.
‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ by Louise Walters [pub. Hodder & Stoughton]

Book review: ‘Life after Life’

kate atkinson - life after life cover 26-5-13It’s a while since I read a book I didn’t want to put down, a book that made me continue reading in bed gone midnight.

On Saturday...

On Saturday…

Kate Atkinson manages the macro settings and the micro details with ease, from the petty sibling squabbles at Fox Corner to the camaraderie of the ARP wardens in the Blitz. Before I started reading ‘Life after Life’ I read the phrase ‘Groundhog Day’ a few times in reviews, which belittles the intricate weaving of Ursula Todd’s lives. in the bath 20-5-13In the way that Logan Mountstuart’s life runs parallel to the great historical moments of the last century, Ursula’s life stories are book-ended by the approach and aftermath of the First and Second World Wars. Ursula, little bear, is an engaging character we see born and die, again and again through her own personal déjà vu.  I wasn’t sure how this was going to work but once I stopped worrying about it and surrendered myself to Ursula, I was transfixed.

... on Sunday

… on Sunday

This is another work of art, as mesmerising as her first Behind the Scenes at the Museum. It is such an ambitious novel, that I can only guess at the intricacy of the writing process and admire her for it. in bed 20-5-13‘Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson

Great opening paragraph… 15

“The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time. I catch it on the warm evening air as I walk past the well-ordered gardens in my quiet street, and for a moment I’m a child again and everything’s before me – all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.
‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn

Great opening paragraph 5… ‘Moon Tiger’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Penelope Lively” ‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ ”
‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively 

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn
‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue
‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell




Here is my old copy of Moon Tiger, well-read and much-loved. Penelope LivelyAnd if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
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