Monday, May 31, 2010

A Duty to the Dead

by Charles Todd
September, 2009
Harper Collins

This novel is the first in a new historical mystery series set in Britain in World War I. It introduces the main character, Bess Crawford, a British Army nurse. She is outspoken, intelligent, resourceful and independent. The novel opens with the sinking of the Britannic (sister ship to the Titanic) in Greek waters. It is an effective opening grabbing the reader’s attention right away. Bess is injured in the sinking and invalided home to recover with her parents. Her father is a retired Colonel who served in India, where she was raised. This background should provide fertile material for the series.

The plot involves Bess visiting the Graham family to deliver a message from a dying son of the family. I won’t give away any spoilers but the story is engaging and not terribly complex. It is set primarily in the Kent countryside and the usual eccentric cast of villagers – the vicar, the matriarch, the tutor, the country doctor - is on display. The time period and the fact that Bess Crawford is an army nurse invite comparisons to the Maisie Dobbs series. This new series compares favorably to the Maisie Dobbs series, they both depict the sorrow and sacrifice of WWI Britain but this series seems darker to me, with characters not quite as well rounded as the Dobbs series. I would recommend this book; it is a straightforward historical mystery that does a good job of putting the reader in the time and place with a mystery that is just intriguing enough to satisfy.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Harper, 2010

I am going to have a difficult time reviewing this book. I have always loved the Inspector Linley series by Elizabeth George.  I was dismayed when George killed off Linley’s wife Helen in With No One as Witness, disappointed in her previous novel Careless in Red and really, really disappointed in This Body of Death. I’ve kept reading this series because I have much enjoyed the characters -Inspector Linley, Barbara Havers, Simon St. James and his wife Deborah. They are well drawn and rich in detail.  The nuances of class in British society are well described.  But I think this might be it for me. This book is 600 plus pages long. It moves at a glacial pace. There is a murder in a London cemetery. The girl who is murdered is from the countryside. There is a historical story that is told in alternating chapters with the real time murder mystery. The historical story speaks to some of the problems of children raised in poverty. It all comes together at the end but it is tortorous. There are numerous characters many of whom are extraneous to the plot. Almost all of the characters seem to lack passion, only Barb Havers delivers in expanding her character in her relationship with her neighbors and her new boss. A new character, Isabelle Ardery, the acting superintendent is introduced. She appears to be a complex person, but the author really doesn’t develop her well. Inspector Linley is oddly passive throughout most of the story and not the protoganist. By the time the murder is solved I bet very few of the readers even care. The motivation for the murder is murky and the murderer is one dimensional.  I hate to be this negative about a book and maybe if the earlier books in this series were not excellent and my hopes so high for this one I would be less disappointed.    I miss the Elizabeth George of old - characters we care about, tight plot lines, and less social commentary!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Question of Honor
A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II
by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud
Knopf, 2003
In this book the authors debunk a number of strongly held myths concerning Poland and her role in WWII. The story is told through the actions of several Polish airmen who served with the RAF in the Battle of Briton but the actions of other Poles both military and non-military aren’t neglected. If you read this I am convinced your opinion of Poland and the Polish role in WWII will be profoundly altered. They say history is written by the victors and in this case Russia triumphed once again over Poland. Poland has been portrayed as at best a pitiful backward victim and at worst a mere footnote in this war. Some of the key facts the authors bring to light:
• Polish airmen in the Battle of Briton were the true “air aces” at times accounting for 30-40% of the downed German planes. Queen Elizabeth II “If Poland had not stood with us in those days…the candle of freedom would have been snuffed out”.

• The Polish military men who left Poland (and there were 100,000 of them) after the Nazi defeat in 1939 traveled thousands of miles to get to the Allied lines. Typical travel stories had these men going through Rumania, down to the Mediterranean and then into North Africa before arriving in England or Free France.

• The Poles never stopped fighting the Nazis. The Polish resistance forces were deemed the most effective by Allied HQ. No other country in Europe suffered, proportionally more damage and casualties in the war. Poland lost 20% of its population v. 11% for Russia, 7% for Germany and less than 1% for US and Britain.

• When people refer to the cities of Europe devastated in the war – London, Dresden, Coventry, and Hamburg, no one ever mentions Warsaw which was leveled when the Poles revolted against the Nazis in 1944-45. An uprising totally unsupported by any Allied help.

• Polish spies obtained the Germans’ Enigma coding machine and Polish cryptographers helped break the ciphers. This wasn’t revealed until the 1970s.

• The Free Polish Army under Allied command was the 4th largest armed force (US, Britain, Russia) on the Allied side. Larger than the Free French Army! They played prominent roles in several Allied campaigns

I could go on with this list but don’t want this review to be too long. This book despite the facts crammed into it reads very well. Individual acts of bravery and valor are juxtaposed with events at the national level. The time period where the Polish airmen were “the Glamour Boys” of England is a great period piece. The first two thirds of the book are inspiring and a fun read as new revelations about Polish military feats are presented. The last third of the book where Poland is excluded and betrayed by the Allies in the post war decisions made at Teheran and Yalta was a harder read for me. The Allies (Britian, US and Russia) insisted that France have an equal share in the post war decisions but excluded the Poles despite their many contributions to the Allied victory. The irony!! Poland who fought to the end sold out and France who barely fielded an army rewarded, ugh. The last comment I’d make is the strong character, loyalty and love of country of the Poles is an integral and moving part of this story.