Tag Archives: second world war


Winter_Of_The_WorldI am a fan of Ken Follett and I’ve enjoyed reading several of his novels, including FALL OF THE GIANTS. So I was looking forward to reading WINTER OF THE WORLD, but it didn’t seem up to his usual standard.

What struck me first was how Mr. Follett’s prose is riddled with tells. Now, I have written a lot about this subject before, and readers of my previous posts know that I’m not against tells providing that they don’t annoy the reader. There are two things to remember about them if you want to use them. First, it helps if they have a voice, a personality or a particular point of view. Neutral reportage doesn’t do in a novel. Secondly, if you can’t do that, you MUST use them SPARINGLY.

Unfortunately, Mr. Follett’s tells were of the neutral reportage variety, so the effect was to dampen down the emotion of the story, which makes the reader LESS emotionally engaged. Not what you want if you are a writer.

But the problem with the tells masked an even deeper problem with this novel, which was the lack of characterization of the main characters. As others have remarked, the vivid personalities from the last novel take a back seat as their children take center stage. What a pity, therefore, that the children are so not interesting! Let us hope that their children, who will feature in the next novel, are as interesting as their grandparents were. Three stars.

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GOOD EVENING MRS CRAVEN by Mollie Panter-Downes

GoodEveningMrsCravenGOOD EVENING MRS CRAVEN by Mollie Panter-Downes is a series of wartime stories set in Britain during the Second World War. Like most British people, Ms. Panter-Downes writes fluently and well, and renders the ordinary world in closely observed snapshots. For example:


Everyone got wedged into the room somehow, bibs were hitched round necks, and a subterranean wheezing located Mrs. Parmenter’s little fellows right under their patron’s chair. Mrs. Ramsay, carving the lamb and listening to the nurses babbling of cardigan patterns, thought moodily that this kind of thing might go on for years.


Ms. Panter-Downes stories become darker as the war grinds on. GOODBYE MY LOVE is about the touching parting of a young man and a young woman. When the young man unexpectedly reappears, she bursts into floods of tears, because she will have to say ‘goodbye’ to him all over again. GOOD EVENING MRS. CRAVEN is about the heartbreak of being the ‘other woman’ when your man has gone off to war. Your man is not actually your man, and another woman is his wife, and the relationship is secret (or supposed to be so), getting any news is almost impossible. Unless you resort to subterfuge. THE HUNGER OF MISS BURTON tackles an issue that would have been all-too-familiar to the people who survived through that war. Miss Burton is adult and female, and as such is supposed not to take more than her fair share, leaving the leftovers for the children. But she is so hungry! IT’S THE REACTION is perhaps the saddest story of all, about another adult single female, who yearns for another bomb to drop so that her neighbors will come out of their shells and include her in their lives. Without a crisis, her life is so, so, heartbreakingly, lonely.

There is triviality mixed in with tragedy, pettiness with kindness and the usual day-to-day problems wound together with the reality of war. If you want to know more about the war, and what life was like, these stories provide a good introduction. But you won’t learn much about the characters who inhabit these stories. Though well-defined, they remain largely private. (How English.) Four stars.

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A VINTAGE AFFAIR by Isabel Wolff

A VINTAGE AFFAIR is the story of a friendship that ended in tragedy. Or rather, two friendships that ended in tragedy, both causing a tremendous amount of survivor guilt to both women involved. One story takes place in France during the second world war. The other is a contemporary story set in present-day London. But author Isabel Wolff is a talented story-teller who manages to weave these plot threads together in a way that does not seem cliched or predictable. And although I am generally not fond of contemporary fiction (I tend to find it too depressing), I did enjoy getting to know the protagonist Phoebe Swift, who not only opens a vintage clothing store in London, but also goes on a emotional roller-coaster of a ride during this novel.

If you love reading about the recent past, especially about beautiful clothes, and if you enjoy reading something that will stir your emotions and cause you to think, this is the book for you. Perfect for a curl up by the fire during one of those cold days we are having now.  Five stars.

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Book Review: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Mary Ann Shaffer’s THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY is a wonderful quirky book, that by turns is funny and tragic.

Juliet Ashton has survived the second world war. To cheer people up, she wrote a column under a pen-name. Now she wants to do something different. One day, a letter arrives from Guernsey, from someone asking for a small favor. Kind-hearted Juliet complies, and sends a note back in response. From such small beginnings, Ms. Shaffer spins a wonderful tale of wartime hardship, post-war optimism and the shadows left behind.

This is not to say that the book is completely faultless. Some readers will be put off by the fact that this novel is actually a collection of letters, and may wonder why the author chose to cast her story in this fashion. Telling a story like that is a wonderful way of dealing with POV problems. Every character has a chance to become the narrator of his or her own story, and it can be easier to bring out voice and personality when writing in first person, rather than limited 3rd.

Casting novels in letter-format also has a distinguished history. All those eighteenth century novels like PAMELA, CLARISSA, EVELINA and CECILIA were written in this way. In fact the novel got started because Samuel Richardson was publishing a book of how-to letters for the nouveau riches. Letter number 7 or 8 of this compendium was how to tell your parents that the squire is making unwanted advances. And so PAMELA was born.

Perhaps the other biggest problem with the novel is the revelation of the death of the main character, which occurs halfway through the book. Putting this revelation later would have enabled the author to use it to heighten tension. On the other hand, this character takes up a lot of psychic space, and so getting rid of her allows other characters to flourish.

But such objections are minor. If you allow yourself not to be put off by all the letters, I think you will find this novel a surprising treat.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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