Saturday, November 24, 2012

More old books you should have read: World War II in fiction

With Veterans' Day just past and National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day looming, I am revisiting some of the great novels I have read with World War II as their setting. Since I am a big fan of British fiction, many of the books I have loved take place in England, although there are also standout titles in locales such as France and the Netherlands. Note: Aside from the first, these aren't all technically "old" books (as in decades), but they aren't brand new either, so if you missed them...don't! You won't be sorry.

Coming Home, by Rosamunde Pilcher
While many only know Pilcher for her short and sweet romance novels, she has written four or five longer works that give a wonderful, evocative picture of life in England and Scotland from the 1930s to present-day. While I love The Shell Seekers, for which she is perhaps better known, her novel Coming Home is one of my favorite books ever. It is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Judith Dunbar, who in 1935 is left behind at boarding school in England while her mother and baby sister go "out" to join her father, a businessman living in Singapore--a common practice when it was believed that the East was an unhealthy climate in which to raise children. Then war comes, and the life Judith has made for herself with extended family and friends is turned upside down. The book follows Judith as she grows up, experiences love and loss, and is exposed to the wider tragedies of war; it is a personal, moving story with wonderful characters who will stick with you long after you finish the book. Note: The Shell Seekers also visits wartime England in flashback for almost half of its content, and is another good read.

The Distant Hours, by Kate Morton
A nice combination of history and rather gothic mystery, as reflected in the cover art. As a young teen, Meredith Baker was evacuated from London to Milderhurst Castle during the war. Fifty years later, in 1992, a letter arrives in the mail for her that was originally posted in 1941, and her daughter, Edie Burchill, a London book editor, returns to Milderhurst in search of the details of her mother's story. There, she is invited by the three aging Blythe sisters to write an introduction to a reprint of their father Raymond's children's book, and while visiting the castle she tries to discover the truth of what happened in "the distant hours"of the past. If you enjoy this book, you might also like The Forgotten Garden and The House at Riverton, by the same author. BPL also owns all three of these as audiobooks.

Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris
Harris is most celebrated for her book Chocolat, from which the movie (with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) was made, but I loved this one even more. It's another book of culinary metaphor, this time set in the Loire region of France a couple of decades after the end of the war. The main character, Framboise Dartigen, was a child during the Nazi occupation of her village. A tragic event took place during this period, for which her mother bore the blame; now in her 60s, Framboise has returned to claim the family farm, and has opened a creperie. She inherited a scrapbook of recipes and notes from her mother, but in working her way through these in her quest for dishes for her restaurant, she begins to unravel the mystery of exactly what happened in Les Laveuses when she was nine years old. It's a great plot melded with sensual, tangible descriptions of food and drink for which the French are so renowned. Another winner.

Tamar, by Mal Peet
This is catalogued as a young adult novel, but would be equally appealing to adults. It is set half in the 1990s and half in the 1940s, and is the dual story of 15-year-old Tamar, who is grief-stricken at the death of her grandfather, and of the grandfather's life in the Dutch resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, a venue not often visited in World War II novels. It reads like both a memoir and a mystery, and will keep you guessing until the shocking conclusion. This book won the Carnegie Medal in Literature.

Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis. Even in science fiction, there is room for the World War II novel. In these two tomes, Willis takes us from a future Oxford, where time travel has been invented and has become a research tool for historians, to the London of World War II, where we follow her time travelers as they take on 1940s personas to try to blend in and not change history while following their research directives. Things, of course, go awry, as things are likely to do during wartime in a target city, and there is a lot of breathless, frightening, and desperate drama ahead for characters and reader alike. Be warned that these two books are not a first book and its sequel--they are really one giant story cut in half--so if you begin the one, you will have to commit to reading to the end of the other. (I didn't consider this a hardship!) If you prefer to listen, we also have these two as audiobooks.

If you enjoy the time travel motif married to historical fiction, be sure to follow up with Willis's Doomsday Book, which lands an early time traveler in the middle of the Black Death, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, an hysterical French farce of a story about the quest to restore Oxford Cathedral in every excruciating detail by popping in and out of history in search of a glimpse of the elusive bishop's bird stump. (No, no one knows what that is, exactly...)

There is a long list of other novels with a World War II motif--if you do a "power search" in iBistro (the library catalog) by specifying "world war" and choosing location "fiction," you will find pages and pages of them. Here are a few more, including some book club favorites or books-into-movies of past years:

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake
Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis De Bernieres
Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
The Reader, by Bernard Schlink
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer
Resistance, by Anita Shreve
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

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