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Blood, guts and glory

World War One aficionados have had more than enough to satisfy their interests in this centenary year of the start of the Great War. (One hopes that the centenary of its end will be as well marked in four years time.) Harrod-Eagles knows her way around a massive cast of characters: her Morland Dynasty series, following the titular family from the War of The Roses up to 1931, is now in its 35th volume.

This is the first instalment in the author's new series, which presumably follows the war year by year. Since she's already tread this path in the past, via the Morlands, die-hard fans of her work may find themselves if not disappointed, then at least bemused by this apparent back-tracking and perhaps rather let down that there isn't merely another book in the beloved series instead.

It's summer in England, 1914. One can almost see the dust motes floating on air as the sun reaches its zenith in the fictional town of Northcote. We become immediately absorbed in the personalities and relationships of the major players: the Wroughtons, who are the local gentry, especially Charles, the heir; the Hunters who are members of the new, growing middle class, who are neither here nor there, with their family beauty Diana longing for a match with the taciturn Charles; and the lower classes, the servants and the like, who populate the kitchens and stables and shops.

War is not declared until well into the novel, and Harrod-Eagles manages to incorporate the big events with those that are more mundane - up to a point. There are passages in which information is disseminated rather starkly, mainly through the person of Hunter patriarch Edward who is a banker. His conversations with influential government-types ring extremely falsely, like great chunks of a history book inserted between quotations marks. These are the only sour notes hit throughout though, as everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight, and each character becomes more complex as we go along.

Harrod-Eagles also takes pains to bring in the burgeoning Suffragette movement and the unrest in Ireland. Since I only got hooked into her work very late in the game, I didn't have any déjà vu as regards the subject matter; I won't however, be picking up the previous novels that cover this time period. A pity, as her books are really satisfying reads.

SOME LUCK

By Jane Smiley

Pan Macmillan (2104) €17.99

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From the fields of France to the acres of Iowa: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley begins a trilogy covering one hundred years of life in America, almost where Harrod-Eagles plans to leave off. Walter Langdon, husband to Rosanna, father to Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire, served his time Over There and having seen Paree, was happy enough to stay down on the farm after it was all over.

This has all the earmarks of a saga - lengthy period of time covered; dizzying number of innovations to be integrated into daily life; births, deaths, etc - all these boxes are ticked. Yet this is no pot-boiler, with drama for drama's sake. Indeed, Smiley's tone is so gentle, so measured, even in times of great upheaval and grief, that it is almost hypnotic - in fact, it's almost as hypnotic as living one's own life: waking, sleeping, eating, moving forward sometimes without knowing that one is being moved, thrusting one's dreams into reality without having known how one has gotten the energy to do so.

Whilst every character is drawn cleanly and clearly, and every personality fully realised, the overall authorial tone reigns, one of detached omniscience that allows for all the saga/drama without losing its perspective or descending into the depths of chaos or ascending the heights of joy. It is not cold or uncaring, it merely is, in the way that the Langdons, in the great scheme of things, merely are: despite their hopes and dreams, they are going round the wheel of life along with many other souls.

Despite the apparent detachment, Smiley's tone is full of warmth and humour; it comes with a touch of satire when needed, but is always leavened by the sheer fondness of a writer writing about something that touches her heart. In turn, it touches the reader's heart. Cannot wait for the next one!

It was shockingly difficult to choose only a few well-known or classic books about armed conflict. Here are a few more, with two that go farther afield.

WAR HORSE

By Michael Morpurgo

Egmont (2011) €10

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Joey is horse and he narrates his life story from the age of six months, when he is ripped from his mother's side and sold, through to his being torn from the side of his beloved boy Albert to be sent to serve in WWI. Joey is then torn from his pal Topthorn (he's a horse) and his officer - poor Joey! Morpurgo does an amazing job telling the story from an animal's point of view, and puts a different slant on the suffering experienced during that conflict.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE

By Kurt Vonnegut

RosettaBooks (1969; 2010 reissue; eBook) €4.50

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Based on Vonnegut's experience serving in Dresden, and released on the cusp of the Vietnam War, this is considered an American classic, and it certainly showcases the unfortunate reality that the war-like are always among us. When I first read this in high school, I was sure I was missing something; time has not changed this perception. Non-linear time plays the large part in this, and we jump all over the place as the hapless Billy Pilgrim goes off to war, and comes back a broken man. Or at least a confused one. Aliens figure largely. Nope, still am not getting this.

DISPATCHES

By Michael Herr

Picador (1977; reissue 2015) €11.99

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A well-deserved reissue and the precursor, if not the granddaddy, of the embedment of journos in Afghanistan. Herr wrote for Esquire Magazine and this book is the result of his front line involvement in the Vietnam War (I'll stick to book reviews, thanks.) He also figured largely in the productions of Apocalypse Now and Platoon, which tells you everything you need to know about this. It is definitely an on-the-ground recounting of the madness of the jungle, the extreme youth of the soldiers, and of the general mayhem; those seeking a more historical account may look elsewhere.


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