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Into That Fire: A grown up love story

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’m lucky enough to get books sent to me by Penguin Random House Canada. But I often forget what I’ve requested and sometimes the books arrive and my excitement levels are fairly low. I look at some books and go “why did I think this would be something I’d want to read?”

I know, I’m a jerk.

That’s kind of how I was feeling when I sat down to start reading M.J. Cates’ Into That Fire. Plus, it’s CanLit which is a genre I still struggle with. I tried to get a sense of what other readers were feeling via goodreads but there was virtually no information about the book there. I was apprehensive to say the least, anticipating a several-days’-long-slog of a read.

I could not have been more wrong about Into That Fire. It was wonderful.

fire

It is 1916 and Imogen Lang knows she’s about to break Quentin Goodchild’s heart. He is her best friend in medical school but she knows that he wants more than she’s prepared to give. Imogen has plans to go on to Baltimore, to work in a lab and with patients to try and find a cure for madness. When she finally tells Quentin how she feels, she breaks his heart and Quentin determines to join the army and die. He leaves to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force (the States isn’t involved in the Great War at this point) and Imogen leaves for Baltimore to try and further her career. But Imogen wasn’t prepared for the sexism she was going to encounter in pretty well every aspect of her life and when she hears that Quentin has been killed she starts to think about the life she might have had with Quentin.

Into That Fire takes its time. The characters have the space to become fully fleshed out, to live and love, to fail and succeed. I had initially thought of it as a WWI story but it’s so much more than that. It mostly centers around Imogen and her fight to become recognized as a professional in a time when women basically all dropped out of the few careers open to them once they married and had children. There’s a whole psychology thread to the book that I wasn’t sure I would enjoy but I felt like it added so many layers to the book.

I can’t say that this is an emotional book but I did find myself getting ENRAGED by some of the sexism Imogen encounters. She is constantly being undermined, forced to explain herself, and held to infuriating double standards. When the man she marries blames her for the problems in their marriage because she insisted on working once they had children even though he always said that he wanted her to work, supported her dreams, I almost threw the book across the room. I wasn’t swept away but I was definitely invested.

I spent a fair amount of time wondering about the identity of M.J. Cates. It’s a pseudonym for a Canadian writer who has written many novels and won several awards under another name. If you know who this is, please please tell me. I did a casual google and couldn’t find out. I’m leaning towards Cates being a woman but I honestly couldn’t put money on it.

Into That Fire is a full grown love story with layers and three-dimensional characters, littered with truths about the human condition. I’m still thinking about it and need to tell more people about how good it is.

9

Falling off the cliff of my interest

I am a sucker for historical fiction.

Seriously. You tell me a story about some kind of country house or palace, a family grappling with some kind of external force and maybe throw in a war? GIVE ME THAT BOOK.

Write a stellar first book of a promised trilogy and I am yours for life. Especially when you follow that up with equally impressive non-fiction.

But trick me into reading a sub-par effort in said trilogy and I will be SO MAD.

I loved The Storms of War. I couldn’t get enough of Kate Williams’ Ambition and Desire, a biography of Josephine Bonaparte.

But The Edge of the Fall, the follow-up to The Storms of War actively made me rage.

edgefall

When we left the De Witt family, we weren’t at all sure what the fortunes of the war would do to them. The father had been incarcerated in an internment camp as an alien enemy, the younger son had been killed in battle, the older one had run off to Paris, Celia was back from driving ambulances and had her heart broken by Tom who was possibly her brother, and sister Emmeline had married her tutor and was living in London.

The Edge of the Fall literally starts with a young woman falling off the edge of a cliff.

The rest of the book tries to find out what happened to her: did she fall or was she pushed? Told from different viewpoints, jumping around in time, Williams attempts to fit the puzzle pieces together.

Except you already know exactly what happened, it’s not a mystery and it’s not even very interesting. Celia is so boring, she can’t be bothered to DO anything; Emmeline has twins and makes excuses for her socialist husband; big brother Arthur is a monster; and nothing really happens to anyone except this fall at the beginning.

For something billed as historical fiction, it tried really hard to be some sort of mystery. The whole thing was like that season of Downton when Bates is accused of murdering his ex-wife and everyone spends the season trying to figure out if he did or didn’t? Remember how tedious that was? This book is like that storyline.

I was so bored. I was screaming for something to happen, anything. The only interesting part was when Celia goes to visit the German relations, having been unable to see them for the entire duration of the war. Only then does Williams do any credit to the rich historical context of post-WWI Britain and relations with Germany. Shame that Celia was the least interesting, most self-absorbed and yet pathetic character in this book.

One of the most interesting angles of The Storms of War was how this Anglo-German family handled the split loyalties and how they were viewed in their community. None of that is really visited in this book, except when Celia goes to Germany to see firsthand the devastation the war has brought.

When, at the end of this book, Arthur declares that he and Celia should go to America to find their fortunes, it was too late for this reader. There’s no way I’m going to read the last book. I can’t put myself through another 400+ pages of this.

 

7

Heartbreaker: The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was one of the early books my book club chose to read. I was completely taken in by the story of a gruff old man learning how to let go of his prejudices in a town that had always enforced them, of learning to open his heart to a most unexpected love.

That book was published way back in 2010. I wasn’t waiting for a new book from Simonson, but when it showed up on my radar, I was interested.

Then I started reading reviews of it on Goodreads and people didn’t seem to love it. I backed off.

I came across a copy at the library a few weeks ago and thought “why not?”

summer

The Summer Before the War is set in a village in England, in the summer of 1914. Beatrice Nash has taken the post of Latin teacher at the school, the first woman to ever hold the post. When she arrives she meets Agatha Kent, who has been instrumental in Miss Nash’s success in getting the job. Mrs Kent warns her that she has a lot riding on her doing well in the job. Mrs Kent has two nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Daniel fancies himself a poet, intent on running away to Paris and setting up a literary magazine with his titled best friend; Hugh is training to be a surgeon, the more serious of the cousins, he becomes a good friend to Beatrice.

The book becomes about the havoc that the war wreaks on a certain way of life in England at the time. Belgian refugees come to the village, straining resources and forcing people to confront the realities of a war they’d prefer not to think about too much. This book is less about whatever might happen between Beatrice and Hugh and more about how a whole village does or does not pull together in a time of crisis.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get into this one. Simonson lays a lot of groundwork of the time, the characters, their backgrounds, the rules that govern society – all on a backdrop of this idyllic, golden English summer. I found it hard to figure out how much time had passed – war seemed to very suddenly affect the village in a myriad of ways and it felt like more time should have passed. But you know, I wasn’t around in 1914, so maybe that’s exactly how it played out. Simonson probably knows better than me.

The strength of this book lies in the foundation. Before you know it, you are deeply invested in the lives of the characters that you’ve totally fallen in love with. Snout, a 15-year-old with a questionable heritage, a passion for Latin, who decides war will be the making of him; Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee who needs the support of the village when the full extent of her experiences become known; Eleanor, whose German husband is in Germany and who people suspect of possibly being a spy. And of course, Beatrice, Agatha, Daniel and Hugh.

And lest you think it’s completely character driven, know that Simonson also did an amazing job, like she did with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, of examining the prejudices of the day. Women’s suffrage, the plight of the Fallen Woman, antipathy towards the area’s Romani population, and class snobbery are all embroidered in the fabric of the story.

By the time I finished reading this one, tears were streaming down my face. Totally unexpected.

I meant to buy this one many times over and now that I’ve returned the library’s copy, I regret that I didn’t give in to that temptation. This is a book I would have liked to loan to others.

12

WWI Fiction: The Storms of War

Almost a year ago I had the pleasure of reading Kate Williams’ biography of Josephine Bonaparte. At the time, I called it a perfect biography so blown away was I by the scope of detail and the pace of the book. Biographies can be overtaken by too much explanation, distracting from the aim of telling the story of a life but Ambition and Desire was not that kind of biography.

I picked up The Storms of War on a whim a few weeks back. You are all familiar by now with my inability to stop collecting books even though I have stacks of them unread at home. The Storms of War was in a bookstore, I read the synopsis, thought it sounded good and I bought it.

Then I found that I had a little bit of World War I fatigue – I had read a couple of novels set in that time that fell flat for me and I wondered if maybe I had hit my peak for reading about the time. I didn’t even realize that the same Kate Williams that wrote Ambition and Desire wrote this book until I was in the middle of reading it.

storms

The Storms of War is the story of the de Witt family. Father Rudolph is German born but has made piles of money packaging meat and has been able to buy a family home in the country, Stoneythorpe, and considers himself an English gentleman. Oldest son Arthur is in Paris, doing God knows what, son Michael is studying at Cambridge, Emmeline is engaged to marry Sir Hugh, an arrogant gas bag if ever there was one, and youngest child Celia longs to run away to Paris and write books. When the war comes, everything changes for the family. Because he is German born, Rudolph must register as an alien and surrender his cars. Eventually he is taken away from the family and incarcerated. Michael runs away with one of the servants to serve as soon as war breaks out. But he isn’t naturally brave and struggles with his new reality. Emmeline’s fiance balks at marrying a German and is never heard from again and Emmeline is cut loose, without any other prospects. Meanwhile Celia is left to deal with her mother who is increasingly depressed, spending days locked in her room, refusing to eat.

I wasn’t completely sure about this book for at least 100 pages. I just couldn’t see where all of this was going, especially since this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. I thought maybe it was another book going through the paces of telling a WWI story without actually telling much of a story. But eventually pieces started to fall into place and once Celia enlists to drive ambulances in France, I really got into it.

This is exactly the kind of book about World War I that I’ve been looking for. It showcases the bravery of the men and women who longed to serve their country, of those left behind to wonder what happened to those they had waved off to the front, of the sacrifices made by a nation and the dark undercurrent of distrust against those who had ‘infiltrated’ their country and could no longer be left to live their own lives. This book looks at the class system as it was and how the war broke all that down, to provide new opportunities that could only have been dreams before.

This 500 page book only told the de Witt family story from 1914 to 1918 and the trilogy promises the story to 1939. I’m excited to see where this goes and am definitely on the lookout for the next book.

10

The Dust That Falls From Dreams

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Louis de Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams has one of the most beautiful and touching dedications that I have ever seen:

In memory of my grandmother’s first fiance,
Pte Howell Ashbridge Godby HAC
Died of wounds received at Kemmel 19/2/15
If not for his death, I would have had no life.

If you can keep that dedication in your head while you are reading this book, I suspect that it will be a more meaningful read for you.

dust

The McCosh sisters, Christabel, Ottilie, Rosie and Sophie, live an idyllic existence in a large house in a suburb of London. Their father makes a good living, their mother worships the royal family and they have a bevy of servants to look after their every need. On one side live the Pendinnis boys: Sidney, Albert and Ashbridge, and on the other side, the Pitt brothers, Daniel and Archie. The story opens with the families celebrating the new Edwardian reign after the coronation of Edward VII. They are enjoying the golden day and celebrating what will surely be a glorious new era. Rosie and Ashbridge get engaged on this day, even though they are children yet.

Then we fast forward a few years, a new king is on the thrown and war has been declared. All the boys enlist, keen to do their part before it’s all over. Rosie and Ash are still engaged and agree to wait until he has leave or the war is over before they get married. Boys from the same towns and areas were stationed together and fought side by side. This meant that often whole generations of boys from the same town were wiped out – they didn’t do that in the WWII because they had learned this horrible lesson. All three Pendinnis boys die, leaving Rosie to mourn the loss of a man she considered herself already married to.

The first third of this book is all over the place. Each chapter is written from a different perspective, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, a few chapters are diary form from the front. Those chapters were really difficult tor read- they offered a gruesome and probably fairly accurate picture of the horrors of trench warfare.

Once the war is over, the narrative settles down some but not that much happens. Daniel was an ace pilot and comes back intent on winning Rosie over. The McCosh household must learn to make do without footmen, Christabel finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and Sophie falls in love with a pastor.

I love this era. I admire the strength of people to take on a war unlike anything in history before. It was a time of such social upheaval – women agitating for the vote, having worked outside the home while the men were away fighting, the changes in social structure as servants fought side by side with the men they used to serve. Such a stage for story telling! And even with such a personal connection to this story as de Bernieres has, it still manages to fall flat. I was enchanted by the dedication and when I went back to look at it after I had finished the book, it did tug a little more at my heartstrings, I understood some of what the author was trying to do. Daniel and Rosie struggle to find happiness together, both of them dogged by the shadow of their old friend/fiance Ash. But at some point they have to make the decision to be happy. I’m not sure that 511 pages were needed to get there.