Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Blitz of Books

 The first German bombs hit London on September 7, 1940, around 4:00pm. They didn’t let up until May 11, 1941. World War II is a time rich in history for stories fictional and true, but the Blitz—that seemingly-endless winter of air raids on England’s biggest city—is a period that is packed with tales of drama and derring-do. The goal of the Blitz was to demoralize Britain to the point of surrender. But Londoners were determined to keep their upper lips stiff and defy Hitler by staying put and living their lives, taking cover when the sirens wailed in basements, backyard shelters, and underground railway stations. A story set against the blacked-out ruins of London’s Blitzed streets is bound to be chock-a-block full of bravery, glory, adventure, tragedy, and triumph.

Blackout by Connie Willis, 2010, Spectra Ballantine Books (Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

In 2060, at Oxford University, history students know that the best way to study the past is to be there. And thanks to the invention of time travel (via “the net”), getting that first-hand experience has never been easier. Polly, Merope, and Mike are three young historians with an interest in World War II. Mike is observing random acts of heroism during the rescue of British troops at Dunkirk. Merope is a maidservant at a big manor house in the country, caring for children evacuated from London to escape the bombings. And Polly is studying the Blitz, working as a London shop girl during the day and taking cover from bombs in cellars and tube stations at night. But soon our three intrepid historians discover a very big problem—their rendezvous points back to 2060 won’t open. Their only hope is to find each other in London, but nothing is as simple as it’s meant to be—including making sure that what happens is what’s supposed to happen. Author Connie Willis has toyed with time travel before in her gripping, award-winning Doomsday Book and her delightfully comic To Say Nothing of the Dog. Like those books, Blackout hooks the reader from the first page. Willis’ depictions of life during World War I—particularly Polly’s constant near-hits and misses during the Blitz—are pitch perfect. The nail-biting suspense will inspire near-frantic page turning. Blackout’s highly-anticipated sequel, All Clear, is due in October 2010.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, 2010, Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons (Historical Fiction)

The Postmistress is the story of two women in the small Cape Cod town of Franklin, Massachusetts—Iris, manager of the local post office, and Emma, the doctor’s bride—and the woman they listen to on the radio, Frankie Bard, reporting live from the London Blitz. These three women are very different. Iris is a no-nonsense spinster of forty who has fallen in love with the town mechanic, Harry Vale. Emma is a pretty young thing with no family except her new husband, the duty-torn Dr. Will Fitch. Plucky Frankie, mentored by Edward R. Murrow and used to dodging bombs in the blacked-out London streets, knows that if she can find the right story to send back to the States, she can spur a reluctant nation into action. The lives—and carefully-kept secrets—of Iris, Emma, and Frankie slowly intertwine as author Sarah Blake weaves a lyrical story that brims with suspense and delicately-wrought drama. Frankie’s reports on the Blitz and other wartime atrocities strike home as much with readers as they do with Iris and Emma, and readers and characters both are left to contemplate the truths and untruths that accompany the unfamiliar turmoil and desperate hopes of war. A haunting piece of literature, The Postmistress goes far beyond the reaches of historical fiction to present a true portrait of a time and its people.

London Calling by Edward Bloor, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Teen Fiction)

Angsty seventh-grader Martin Conway’s family is complicated. His father is an alcoholic, but his grandfather Martin Meehan was an embassy secretary who hobnobbed with the Kennedys in 1940 London. All Souls Prep School, where Martin’s mother works so her son can attend tuition-free, was founded by even more prominent World War II hero General Henry M. “Hollerin’ Hank” Lowery. Stuck in the long shadows cast by the men in his life, Martin broods in his basement bedroom. But he is yanked out of his miserable existence when his grandmother dies and leaves him an antique radio. Martin intends to use it as a night light, but when he plugs it in something very strange happens. While he sleeps Martin is transported to London in 1940, smack dab in the middle of the Blitz, where a scrappy little kid named Jimmy pleads with him to “do his bit.” This is no dream. When Martin wakes up and does a bit of modern research, he discovers that Jimmy and the other Londoners he’s seen and heard are real, documented people. He also uncovers some unexpected truths about the very men he’s been brought up to revere and admire. This is a novel overflowing with the tension of things left unsaid and secrets kept too long. Martin’s fears and insecurities are laid bare by his intimate narrative voice and author Edward Bloor’s evocation of Blitz-ravaged London is hard-hitting. A bit heavy-handed at times when dealing with the ethics of religion, politics, and history, London Calling is nevertheless a poignant coming-of-age story.

A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers, 2003, St. Martin’s Press (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

Author Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was one of the Queens of Crime during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1930s and 40s. Her detective of choice was dapper aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey. The last Wimsey story was published in 1942, but Sayers left a few other tantalizing bits and pieces behind. One of these, “The Wimsey Papers,” is a series of fictional letters to and from members of the Wimsey family that Sayers penned in 1940. In 2003, mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh filled out the details and wrote A Presumption of Death. Lord Peter is offstage most of the novel on a hush-hush government mission, but he is never out of his brainy wife Harriet’s thoughts. And Harriet has a lot on her mind during this winter of 1939—an estate to manage, children to raise, and a war to get ready for. Even more worrisome, a young woman is found murdered in the street during an air raid drill. Since the local police are already overwhelmed by war-time preparations, Harriet is asked to fill in and solve the crime. But everyone knows that the usual rules no longer apply when bombs may soon be falling in their own backyards. Walsh writes with a mastery that equally conveys a compelling murder mystery, the gossipy life of a small village town, and the harsh realities that everyday people faced while the Blitz was hot on their heels. Though they are well worth reading, there’s no need to be familiar with Sayers’ previous novels to enjoy this mysterious, historical slice of British life.

Full Dark House: Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries, Book 1 by Christopher Fowler, 2004, Bantam Books (Mystery)

Today, Arthur Bryant and John May are the oldest detectives in the London police department. When they first met in 1940, they were among the youngest. Thrown together when the Peculiar Crimes Unit—formed to solve unusual crimes that might otherwise strike a blow to London’s fragile morale—was created during World War II, Bryant and May are uniquely suited to their rather odd job. Bryant is an unkempt, unconventional believer in the supernatural; May, handsome and sensible, can be relied upon to be open-minded. Call them the Mulder and Scully of crime fiction, and you won’t be too far off the mark. Bryant and May’s is a partnership built to last—until one night, in modern London of the twenty-first century, a bomb in the department’s headquarters puts an end to Bryant’s long career. May, nearly eighty years old now but still sharp as a tack, is determined to solve his partner’s murder. He retraces Bryant’s last steps and is surprised to find that they lead back to the duo’s very first case together, a gruesome series of murders that plagued the dark passages of the Palace Theatre in 1940 while German bombs destroyed the city of London outside. In chapters that shift back and forth between May’s present-day investigation and the air raids of the Blitz, Full Dark House is a riveting mystery chock-full of forensics, suspects, history, and character. Author Christopher Fowler blesses Bryant and May with enough peccadilloes to be interesting, but the detectives are not mere caricatures; these are men with personality enough to fill a series of mysteries—and indeed, Full Dark House is one of seven whodunits to date featuring Bryant and May and their sixty-odd years of suspenseful crime solving.

Blitz: The Story of December 29,1940 by Margaret Gaskin, 2006, Harcourt Books (Nonfiction/ British History/ World War II)

The night of Sunday, December 29, 1940 was one of the worst nights of the Blitz. The relentless German air force dropped three-hundred tons of bombs on London. Over 15,000 fires sprang up and nearly 3,600 civilians were killed. The historical heart of London was the target, and the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral was very nearly lost to fire—had it not been for the dedicated team of firemen who fought the blaze throughout the night. Ambulance drivers, rescue workers, fighter pilots, and anti-aircraft crews all did their part to save the city, and it’s their story that takes center stage in author and historian Margaret Gaskin’s account of December 29. She employs photographs, first-hand accounts, and news reports to reconstruct the events of that fateful night with special attention to the regular folk who stood fast through the destruction and then emerged from their shelters to help their fellows and put their city back together. Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940 ties all these historical details together to present a historical account that is truly a story told by those who lived it.

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