Tag Archives: World War One

The Last Town on Earth: A Lengthy Post Worth Reading Because Trump Isn’t Mentioned


Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth opens 1918 in Washington state as the Spanish flu outbreak begins. Historical fiction, the novel imagines the lives of the citizens in the fictious Commonwealth after the town votes to ‘reverse’ quarantine: as no one in the town is yet sick, they vote to forbid entry or exit from the town and post guards to ensure the quarantine is followed. It closely follows the Worthy family, the patriarch of whom, Charles, is the mill owner and unelected leader of the town; the (adopted) son, Philip, is our protagonist. Continue reading


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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

The Paying Guests: Books to Avoid Reading On Your First Week of Carpool

Underwear Fashion

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is set in 1922 London. Setting is important here because the backdrop of postwar changes in economics and class, social and gender expectations and disaffection with the grand truths of justice deepen the themes explored in this erotic noir. (I didn’t realize I was choosing a novel with erotic scenes when I picked it up from my shelf (the last of the holiday haul), though I ought to have known better having read – and enjoyed – Waters’ The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. Reading it during my first weeks of a carpool positions me to give this advice: be prepared to squirm for ten odd pages).

The novel follows the life of Frances as she struggles to maintain the family home in the absence of male income (see Remains of the Day). Forced to take on ‘paying guests,’ she and her mother are joined in their aging home by the lower-class, freer spirits of Lilian and Leonard Barber. If the first half of the novel traces the budding… relationships between Frances and the couple, the second half takes a decidedly different turn in exploring love tested not by societal expectation, but by conscience and trust. Rather than fuss too much about who loves whom, the novel instead explores the nervousness of (new) love and the doubt that accompanies it (and it goes to some plot extremes to do so).

I very much enjoyed this one. Well crafted, expert character development, written with careful and evocative language (*cough*) it is a delight to be immersed in.  Though I’ll admit that after A. pointed out the frequency of the word ‘queer’ in the novel I was somewhat distracted by its repetition (a project for some student to trace and explore diction in Waters’ work – the way she works the connotations of the early 20th century against that of the contemporary reader).

In entirely unrelated matters, I finished reading the novel in the campus gardens during lunch today. In writing this post a bug has flown out of my hair and now I can’t stop checking to make sure there aren’t more insects all. over. me. Such are the hazards of having this literary vice.

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Filed under Bestseller, British literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

After the War is Over: Altogether too many descriptions of hats


Here are a few reasons I didn’t enjoy Jennifer Robson’s *After the War is Over*:

1. It was altogether ridiculously predictable in plot: to the point that I anticipated the union of our lower-class protagonist with her Lord for so many chapters I skimmed through yet another obstacle-in-the-path-of-true-love, stopping only to admire the frequent use of ‘visage’ and ‘shirtwaist’ (and other lovely period diction).

2. On the subject of unnecessary attention to historical particulars: It included many (many) pointless detours in plot with the sole purpose of showing off historical detail. Details that were only there (I can only assume) because the author holds a PhD in History and seems quite taken with historical specificity for post-Great War era fashion, dances and food. Detours like visits to dress shops, or bedroom dance lessons. Page long descriptions of historical bathing suits. Really. Detours with no discernable relation to character or theme development. Detours entirely devoted to hats.

3. The protagonist is a repressed, self-righteous free spirit just waiting for the right (rich, handsome, rich, cultured, sensitive, rich) man to liberate her from her self-imposed dourness and expose the true glow of her unique petals of utter stunning beauty flower.

Here is 1 1/2 reasons I did:

1. Because Downtown Abbey got it right: there’s something fascinating about the historical moment of 1919 in which class and gender hierarchies (nevermind accepted and expected rules of decorum) get shaken.

1.5 Because it includes a beautiful scene of our protagonist casting her vote in the first election that allowed women (of certain classes) to vote. And because this reader cannot resist swelling feeling of gratitude and respect for those women (and men) who fought – and fight – so hard for franchise.  That said, this scene takes up the first three pages of the book. So you could read those and then… stop.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction

Mr Mac and Me: In Praise of the Small

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Landscape Near Walberswick, 1914Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me sets out to tell the story of the impact of the beginning of the First World War on a British coastal village and the people who live there. Ranging from the introduction of blackout and rationing to the surveillance of ‘enemy aliens’ to grief in response to devastating casualties to the introduction of local building code restrictions the novel charts the pervasiveness of the changes. It does so beautifully, fully and quietly.

By focusing on the narrative of one – foot twisted – teenage boy, Thomas, the reader is offered a particular, if expansive, lens through which to view the depth and extent of the impact of the war. In the opening moments of the story Thomas befriends a tourist couple, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald, who speak German and use binoculars to look at flowers (dangerous, indeed). [Not being much of an art follower I didn’t realize Mackintosh (the titular “Mac”) was a “real life” artist until doing a bit of reading beyond the text. Turns out he’s a big enough deal to have his own “society” and a number of proper biographies]. The collected experiences of Thomas and Mac are not grand or typically heroic, they are, instead, small and sincere (for instance Thomas borrows Mac’s binoculars in an attempt to save him from prison). Yet in the smallness of their story are woven the titanic changes of the time and the contours of total war: shifting gender roles, cataclysmic technological changes, xenophobia, state control of movement/habit and economy and the uncertainty of what is to come (I found this most impressive, that as we readers know how and when the war will end, Freud achieves the opacity of the future for her characters in a subtle, yet masterful, way).

The uncertainty of what is to come concludes the novel. I am, myself, uncertain about how I feel about the conclusion. Rather than spoil anything, I’d encourage you to read Mr Mac and Me and to let me know how you reacted to its ending and what you think it means for the power – and limits – of self-actualization and imagination.


Filed under British literature, Historical Fiction