Archive for January, 2012

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The Amazing Interlude

January 31, 2012

The Amazing Interlude is my new favorite World War I romance. I’m not sure I had one before, but whatever. Mary Roberts Rinehart is, as usual, great, and she has the added advantage of having made a trip over to Europe to check out the trenches and stuff, so she knows what she’s talking about. Not that The Amazing Interlude is as gruesome, serious and propagand-filled as Kings, Queens and Pawns, her account of what she saw at the front, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s light fiction with a high moral purpose, and as such it functions perfectly.

Sara Lee Kennedy, the heroine, lives in Pennsylvania with her aunt and her uncle. It’s the early days of the war, and most Americans are only vaguely concerned with it, but the more Sara Lee thinks about it, the more she feels that she needs to go over to Europe and do something to help, except that she’s not a nurse and she doesn’t know how she can be useful. After her uncle dies, Sara Lee’s fiancé, Harvey, wants to get married immediately — her aunt is moving in with a cousin, and Sara Lee needs to live somewhere. Harvey thinks that the war isn’t their concern, and that her interest in it is silly. The members of the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society, on the other hand, are more like Sara Lee — they all feel a bit guilty that they’re not doing more to help. And that’s how Sara Lee convinces them to allow her a hundred dollars a month to go to Belgium and run a soup kitchen for soldiers at the front. Read the rest of this entry ?

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The First Hundred Thousand

January 25, 2012

The First Hundred Thousand, by Ian Hay, is another of those slightly fictionalized, early-days-of-the-war books. And obviously it’s a bit depressing some of the time, but mostly it’s pretty funny.

This is an account of the training — and, later, the deployment — of a regiment of Scottish soldiers, and basically it does everything right. The humor works without Hay having to sacrifice detail, and I ended up with a much clearer idea than I’d had before about how the British Army was trained, and especially about how things worked once the troops got to the trenches.

My favorite bit, though, is “Olympus,” the chapter on the military bureaucracy, which I’m struggling to figure out how to describe without just pasting in a bunch of text. For one thing, it includes the concept of “losing a life” in a game long before video games were thought of. Mostly, though, it’s just funny — a complicated kind of funny that can’t be condensed into one-liners.

Basically, The First Hundred Thousand is humorous without being flippant, sad but not intrusively so, and very frequently clever. Several thumbs up.

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Good Old Anna

January 23, 2012

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Good Old Anna is a hard book to describe. It’s not exactly a wartime romance, except then it is, and it’s sort of a portrait of growing xenophobia in a cathedral town at the beginning of World War I, except then it’s not. And I don’t know that it ever really becomes a full-fledged spy novel. Basically, there are a lot of different threads, and Lowndes is only mostly successful at deploying them. And I’m okay with that, I think, because all those threads are pretty interesting. Good Old Anna was published in 1915, and it’s very much part of a moment.

Maybe it’s like this: most novels have plots. Some other books have themes. Good Old Anna looks like it has a plot, but really it has a theme, and the theme is Things That Happen to People When World War I Starts. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Young Hilda at the Wars

January 17, 2012

So, this is an odd book. Young Hilda at the Wars is the story of the first ambulance corps in Belgium in World War I, with a focus on Hilda, an American girl who joins the group, and its scatterbrained visionary leader Dr. McDonnell, in London. She and an English lady named Mrs. Bracher establish a nursing station almost on the front lines, along with a Scottish nurse known as Scotch. The book  manages to maintain an almost juvenile-adventure-story tone most of the time in spite of a) lots of dead people, b) lots of maimed people and c) little interludes where the author leaves the story and just writes about dead and maimed people. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Our Square

January 15, 2012

In his two books of “Our Square” stories, Our Square and the People in it and From a Bench in Our Square, Samuel Hopkins Adams veers dangerously close to Eleanor Hallowell Abbott territory: everyone is named things like Cyrus the Gaunt, the Bonnie Lassie, the Little Red Doctor, or the Weeping Scion, and more than half the stories are adorable romances between peculiar young men and beautiful, wealthy young women, cookie cutter-like in their similarity. And if he never gets quite as twee as Abbott, he also doesn’t have her touch with hysteria.

But that’s not to say that the stories aren’t a lot of fun. Barring a few missteps and a dead dog, they are. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Lord John in New York

January 11, 2012

The worst thing about terrible mystery novels — the kind where the hero judges everyone on the most shallow grounds imaginable, and every tenuous connection is treated as a solid deduction — is that you can make fun of the hero all you want for assuming the Egyptian guy he’s found in the phone book (apparently this is a phone book that sorts by nationality?) is the same mysterious Egyptian guy who might have upset the girl he’s fallen in love at first sight with, but in the end you know the hero is going to be proven right. Read the rest of this entry ?

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A few interesting links.

January 10, 2012

So, I’ve just recovered from another bout of the Nero Wolfe Madness.  I’m reading a couple of things I hope to write about soon, but for now, here are some Redeeming Qualities-adjacent links.

Jess Nevins is doing a series on io9 in which he speculates about what science fiction and fantasy novels and stories might have won Hugos if the award had been established in 1885 rather than 1953. Nevins knows a lot about science fiction, he’s got an open mind, and I think he does a really amazing job of showing what the SFF writing/reading/publishing scene was like in the 1880s. I’m not much of a sci fi reader, so I really appreciate having a rundown of what’s good and what isn’t, and familiar names pop up on Nevins’ shortlists more often that I would have thought. The Victorian Hugos series is now up to 1889.

There’s a very cool article by Jennifer L. Brady at the online journal Common-Place that discusses letters sent to Susan Warner by fans of The Wide, Wide World. As someone with fond memories of reading the book, the article gave me warm and fuzzy feelings–as well as making some interesting suggestions  about the way people read sentimental novels and about 19th century fandom.  It’s called “Loving The Wide, Wide World.”

This is probably the meanest book review I’ve ever read, and while I understand that it might give an aspiring author nightmares, as a reviewer I find it to be a delight. The book is The Book of Kings, by James Thackera, and the reviewer is Philip Hensher.