A Train in Winter

ATraininWinterCaroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter tells the stories of the women who participated in and were largely responsible for the Resistance during the occupation of France during World War 2. They were publishers, writers, scientists, nurses.  They were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and lovers. And they were absolutely crucial to the movement for which so many of them were willing to give up their lives.

The stories of the women are impossible to comment on. Their experiences embody a reality for which incomprehensible is an inadequate adjective. Their strength and the dignity with which they represented themselves and their country are the likewise the strength, arguably the only strength, of this book.

In terms of content, yes, Moorehead got this one right. Her depiction of occupied France and the ways in which she characterizes the women about whom she writes are moving and inspiring. However, the mechanical limitations of the book are enough to slow even the most rapacious of readers.

The book’s inconsistent pacing makes for a tough read, the first half of the book a tedious compendium of names and dates and vague character descriptions. At the book’s halfway point, however, the pacing increases rapidly, and the last half of the book is a quick read. In this case, the trudge up the hill of the narrative arc is in every way followed by a speedy slide into the book’s resolution. In order to get to that resolution, however, the reader must be willing to stick with the story.

Since reading is, in its most basic function, a form of communication, syntax is absolutely crucial for success. Moorehead’s sentence structure, however, leaves much to be desired. Varying sentence structure is undeniably important in good writing; however, when the reader is forced to constantly reread passages because of misplaced modifiers and awkward placement of dependent clauses, the overall success of the writing can be called questionable, if nothing else.

While the book is, overall, a success, it would have been nice to see more development of the women themselves, as the subtitle suggests, in the first half of the book. The details given in the first half of the book seem to barely skim the surface of their participation and importance to the French Resistance cause.

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

HouseofVelvetandGlass

Reading this book was a bit like watching someone trying to fly a kite for the first time: every now and then, a promising burst of energy wafts the story upwards creating intrigue and forward movement, but then just as quickly, the energy abandons the book, leaving the reader to reconcile the subplots to the main plot.

Speaking of which, the main plot in the book is excellent, an adept use of magical realism that is not intrusive. In fact, the magic in the book seems, for all intents and purposes, somewhat feasible. The momentum in Sibyl’s story (when considered independently from the rest of the text) is very fluid, and Howe makes excellent use of the cliffhanger device at the end of Sibyl’s sections.

The bits in the middle, though, are somewhat problematic. Their connection to the main plot is not often obvious, and quite often the reader is left to make the connection between the stories for him/herself, leaving much room for misinterpretation. Take, for example, Eulah’s and Helen’s experience aboard the Titanic. While it’s not often advisable to spell out everything for a reader, clarification is sometimes necessary, and that clarification is not obvious in the last section aboard the Titanic.

Despite its tangents, the book maintains its focus, or rather its controlled lack of it, with the help of the time period in which the story is set. On the heels of Titanic’s sinking and on the cusp of US entrance into WWI, the feeling of being out of control, something with which Sibyl seems to struggle, is genuinely realistic and perhaps lends itself as an excuse for some of the more problematic subplots in the story.

The House of Velvet and Glass will, for the most part, keep readers entertained despite some false starts and superfluous subplots (EX: Harlan’s experience with Rawlings), and readers will not be disappointed with the overall story.