How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

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For once, I saw the film of this award-winning Young Adult book before reading the book itself. I’d taken an excellent workshop led by Rosoff, so when I saw the film listed, I decided to take a look. Only later did I follow up with reading the book, and was glad I did.

As the story begins, fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit Aunt Penn, sister to Daisy’s mother who died when Daisy was born. The teen loathes her stepmother, who is pregnant, saying, “If she was making even the slightest attempt to address centuries of bad press for stepmother, she scored a Big Fat Zero.”

Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. She’s met by her fourteen-year-old cousin Edmond, who is not only smoking a cigarette but has brought a “falling-apart” jeep in which he will drive her home.

Thus begins her adventures with her charmingly eccentric cousins in an old house in the countryside. Aunt Penn who is important in the government, leaves almost immediately “to give a lecture in Oslo . . . on the Imminent Threat of War.”

Daisy pays little attention to war-talk, since people had been yammering about the possibility for the last five years, though her oldest cousin Osbert can’t get enough of the latest news. She spends her days with Edmond, his twin Isaac, and their little sister Piper, and assorted dogs, goats and other animals. They fish and swim and picnic.

Then comes the invasion.

This is when the film blew me away. Watching it without knowing the story at all, I thought if a war came, it would be like the Land Girls or children being moved to the countryside during the Blitz, as in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart.

I was wrong. The images of rural England occupied by an enemy force—villages turned into military encampments, cars abandoned on country lanes for lack of petrol—shocked me deeply. And, to my shame, showed me just how superficial my empathy is for other countries trapped by warring armies: Sarajevo, Aleppo, so many others. Not England, I kept thinking.

Shameful, indeed.

I’m glad I went on to read the book. Not only is it more detailed and nuanced—movies must necessarily leave out much of what’s in a book—but Daisy’s voice is so true as she tries to keep her head above water, waters that get deeper and more treacherous as the story goes on. I felt I experienced every minute with her, every shifting emotion. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

Have you read a book recently that showed you something new about yourself, perhaps something you’re not proud of?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

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Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

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I must have been ten or eleven when I first read this novel of an eccentric English family living in a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. I didn’t remember anything except that I’d loved it despite my initial disappointment that it wasn’t about King Arthur or magical doings—I’d come to it from The Once and Future King and somehow thought it was going to be similar.

Yet I only had to read the first sentence for the whole story to come flooding back to me, plus a precise memory of where I was when reading it. The voice of Cassandra, who tells the story, is that strong.

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent.

Her father, a writer, had a very successful book many years ago but hasn’t written since. Her stepmother, Topaz, is a model for whom there aren’t many work opportunities in the depths of the country and London is too expensive. Although a bit drifty, Topaz is even-tempered and has turned out to be adept at fashioning meals out of almost nothing. There’s a brother, Thomas, two years younger, and Stephen, a year older than Cassandra, the son of their maid who stayed on with the Mortmains after her death even though they can’t pay him.

Of her older sister, Cassandra says: “Although I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life.”

See what I mean about the voice? Wanting to be a writer, Cassandra has decided to keep a journal, the book we are reading. She intersperses her record of the oddities of their daily life with her own quite original thoughts and interpretations. I say original, but I remember reading them and thinking Oh yes, that’s EXACTLY the way I feel. And she’s hilarious, sometimes without meaning to be.

I was too young then to recognise the inciting incident, the happening that upends their odd but stable lives. On a rainy night, while Cassandra is taking a bath in front of the kitchen fire, a young man knocks at the door and enters. He and his brother are moving into nearby Scoatney Hall, empty since the death of their uncle who is also the landlord for the Mortmains’ home. The sisters actually joke about Austen’s novel.

In trying to decide what most delights me in this story, I have to give credit to the setting: the peculiar house/castle with its moat and nearby ancient tower. I love the room over the gate where Father retires to “write” every day, but actually reads mystery novels. And Cassandra’s descriptions of their life at home, their jaunts in the English countryside, etc. are quite distinctive. Here’s a bit from her first visit to Scoatney Hall:

We left our wraps in the hall—Topaz had lent us things to save us the shame of wearing our winter coats. There was a wonderful atmosphere of gentle age, a smell of flowers and beeswax, sweet yet faintly sour and musty; a smell that makes you feel very tender towards the past.

I love their hijinks. Not just the imaginative way they live—calling the room between the girls’ room and the adults’ bedroom the “buffer state”, using a dressmaker’s dummy as a confidante and mentor—but the accidental mischief they fall into, like Rose being mistaken for a bear.

Most of all, though, it’s Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises. If you’ve never read this book, you have a treat in store for you. If you have, try reading it again.

Have you reread a book that you loved when young? Was it as good as you remembered?

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?