Cover Image: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile

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As a general rule, Erik Larson is one of my favourite authors, and this book is a good example of why. He has a way of inviting the reader into the story, making you forget that what you are reading is historical, and that it is not fictional. 

I loved this book. Churchill is a favourite subject of mine anyway, but this would be a fascinating book even without that personal attachment. I never realised how much the Prime Minister had going on in his life aside from concerns over the war, nor the personal struggles he was facing during a time when his country was in crisis. 

This book is so real, that one feels they could walk into the room and be part of an ongoing conversation with the family. I found myself lost in this from the first few pages and eagerly reading it over the following days whenever I could catch a  moment to do so. 

I applaud the author for his usual meticulous research and his ability to craft a present world out of the past. You should read this book if you are curious about the past, or about Churchill, or even if you just want to read a genuinely fine book. 

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
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This book was long and dense, but a fantastic telling of Churchill's first year as Prime Minister. Larson does a great job of telling any story in an exciting way to make historical information easy to read. I look forward to his next book.
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Erik Larson has the wonderful ability of picking a specific moment or situation in the past and writing a detailed history while always remembering the human side of things. “The Splendid and the Vile” is another fine example, focusing on the first year of Winston Churchill’s turn as Prime Minister of the UK during World War II.

And what a first year that was. It quickly started with the fall of Holland and Belgium to the Nazis, with France not that far behind. It seems that from a military perspective, the British Army was constantly retreating and evacuating, first from Dunkirk and then just about everywhere else. And the Blitz was just starting and ramping up – the constant bombardment of London and other cities while the RAF was powerless to stop them.

Against this background we have the almost comical figure of Churchill, with his love of cigars, baths, and of course drink. We see him as this great leader who rallied his nation around him, but that wasn’t always so cut and dry while it was happening. Mr. Larson talks about the highs and lows of British politics, of how Churchill was doubted and questioned, how he wasn’t even the first choice (of some) to lead the nation. We see how Churchill relies on his inner circle to run the war effort, how he has to deal with competing priorities and clashing personalities, keeping it all together while England has to go it alone, trying to keep hope alive until America can enter the war.

But Mr. Larson also focuses on the human side, Churchill’s family and friends, and the time they spend at their country home, Chequers. We see the role that his wife Clementine plays in supporting her husband and caring for her family. The Churchills had their own struggles, just like every other family, with a young daughter chomping for freedom, a son who has his own gambling problems, a daughter-in-law carrying on an affair with an American.

For those unfamiliar with this history, this is a great introduction to a period of time when the fate of the world was still uncertain. For those who have explored this before, Mr. Larson uses newly available sources to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of how the war was actually fought on the homefront.

I requested and received a free advanced electronic copy from Crown Publishing via NetGalley. Thank you!
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I had high expectations after reading Erik Larson's other books, and this one did not disappoint. The author has a unique way of taking a historical event that we thought we knew about and helping us look at it through a new, more personal lens. I don't think most Americans realize just how much England had been through before the US joined WWII. We tend to think that things don't really get underway until we arrive, and this book brings home in no uncertain terms just how wrong we are.

My grandfather has talked about being in London during the Blitz, and many excerpts of this book sound as if he is being quoted. The peculiar sound of a bomb shrieking through the air, the way people came together and bolstered each other's courage, the way anyone could die at any moment - man, woman, or child. It was harrowing.....but also exciting. Larson uses the Churchill family to give us varied points-of-view. From Winston, in charge of it all, to his daughter Mary, coming of age at all-night parties that didn't end because bombs were falling, the reader is truly transported back through the decades to a time when England came closer than we realize to being no more.
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I don't know how Larson does it.  But he allows a fiction reader like me to love reading non fiction.  Like his others I did have to start listening a quarter of the way through and read along but I think that is more the dense subject matter vs his writing because I still want to know the story.   Learned so much from this!
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I have read several books by Eric Larson but “ Devil In The White City” was always my favorite, but after reading “The Splendid And The Vile”, this one is a tie for me with the above book.

I have never read another author who can make learning about history engaging and easily readable. It was a bit hard to read in part because of the pandemic we are still struggling with. However, it was such a story of human strength, determination and victory that I found it uplifting. 

I had never researched Winston Churchill in the past and knew him only by brief articles about him or short films. In reading an article by the author I found that after he visited New York he suddenly understood how New Yorkers felt about 9/11, it was an attack on their home city that none of us living elsewhere could truly understand. He then began to think of London and “the aerial assault of 1940-41 in which they endured 57 consecutive nights of bombing, followed by an intensifying series of nighttime raids over the next six months.”

It was then that he decided to write this book and focus on Churchill’s 1st year as prime minister and what it must have felt like to have his city invaded from the sea and sky. “This was the year that Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know, when he made his greatest speeches and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like”. Wow what an incredible achievement of research and smooth flowing prose this book is. I learned about what Churchill’s family life was like and how much they struggled. There are also many characters, ordinary citizens, and what it was like for them, to know that when nighttime came the bombing would start again. 

Reading this book transported me to England and showed me what a unifying leader Mr. Churchill was, how much the populace loved him and how he walked among the ruins and wept openly. He showed by his actions that he was right there in the battle with his countrymen and kept them inspired and motivated to continue the fight.

This book is as easy to read as fiction but is so educational I think it should be a strongly suggested read for high school students. To look at the war from the UK’s point of view and learn what can be achieved by fighting on in spite of the terrible odds they faced.

There has been so much written about this book but truly this is one of the top 10 books I have read this year, simply amazing!

I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley
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I hovered between 3 and 4 stars for this, but ended up on 4 because I can see myself thinking back on details from this book for years to come. It was a bit of a slow read but endlessly fascinating.

I'm not sure how someone who's already read a lot about Churchill will like this, though the author noted that he tried to focus on details and people often overlooked in Churchill bios. Beyond seeing the movie The Darkest Hour, I didn't know much about him, so this was all new to me. Churchill's steadfastness in such trying times, his stirring speeches, and his quirkiness combine to make him quite the fascinating character study. Larson frames it all in a way that keeps the action moving along while also sprinkling in some really cool details that illustrate life in London during this time really well. It was very interesting to read about what went on behind the scenes as Churchill tried to court Roosevelt into entering the war or at least providing aid. And all of the information about the Blitz - man! I knew it was a scary time in Britain, but I don't think I ever realized the full devastation of the bombings. It's kind of mind boggling that America resisted entering the war for so long - by the time Pearl Harbor happened, over 25,000 innocent British civilians had been killed by German bombs. 

This seems like a good intro to Churchill if you're remotely interested in him or London during the beginning of WWII.
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This was an exceptional description of not only the tactical aspects of the war, but of the lives affected.  This method gave new insights to Churchill’s family especially. A very readable portrayal of this important event in world history.
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Nonfiction | Adult
I’ve read a few of Erik Larson’s books over the years, including The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania; his meticulous research and strong writing make him a top choice for those who like riveting nonfiction that reads like fiction. In this latest title, Larson turns his attention to Winston Churchill and his leadership during the Blitz – the German bombing of London and environs during World War II. In an foreword, Larson explains his interest was piqued by the tragedy of 9-11 in New York City, as he considered how different the experience was for those who lived there as opposed to the majority who watched it from afar. “Almost immediately I started thinking about London and the German aerial assault of 1940-41, and wondered how on earth anyone could have endured it: fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing…” In researching the topic, he decided to focus on Churchill’s first year in office, his closest aides and political confidantes, and his family. Thus this book was born – more than 500 pages in length, including an extensive set of notes, a bibliography, and an index. The book focuses primarily on the Churchill family – Winston, his wife Clementine, his children Mary, Randolph and his wife Pamela, and to a lesser extent Diana and Sarah, as well as key political figures in the Churchill government, and key political figures like Hitler, Hess, Goring and Roosevelt, among others. There are a lot of people to keep track of, and I kept flipping back to figure out who they were. This is an interesting blend of political and social history, ranging from details on what is served for dinner at Chequers to the telegrams pleading for support from Washington D.C. With so many characters, I found it a bit of a chore early on to get into the book, but soon found myself absorbed by the researched detail that brings this year to life. Larson gives equal measure to every major character, allowing the reader to develop a nuanced understanding of Clemmie’s frustration and need for quiet time, and a sympathetic view of Winston’s private secretary John Churchill. Just imagine the challenge of working for a man who, by all accounts, thrived on just a few hours of sleep every night and dictated a dozen memos in a day. But most of all, we grow to appreciate the amazing leadership that allowed the British citizenry to face night after night of bombing and barrages. In Churchill’s own words, “I never gave them courage. I was able to focus theirs.” An excellent choice for fans of riveting nonfiction that will also appeal to history buffs and those who enjoy a great adventure story, including older teens. My thanks to Crown Publishing for the digital reading copy provided through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
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When one thinks of Winston Churchill, one thinks of the caricature of him. A quirky, imposing man, smoking a cigar, directing England’s response to the war from the Cabinet War Rooms and often dictating war directives from his daily bath.

What Erik Larson brings to THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE is so much more than the usual version of Churchill.  Larson provides a humanization of him, his cabinet, staff, and family, from the beginning of the war through the end of his first year as Prime Minister.  Just like his other books, Larson is meticulous in his storytelling, making you feel like you are on the ground, in the thick of it with the rest of England.  

Larson’s typical readers will love this novel. I was teasing it to my father in law, and he’s already heard of it and is excited to read it.  But I wasn't sure how I would like it, as I am not one of Larson’s typical readers, having read only THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY about 15 years ago, and history is not my preferred genre.  It turns out it was not a problem, as I found myself drawn in from the outset. History and humanity brought color to the tough subjects of lost lives and political strategy. It read like a fiction novel because the cabinet members were so full of character and nuance. I also enjoyed the keen sense of place throughout. You could see London experience the bombing as if you were there yourself, and could easily imagine walking through the hills of the country and coming upon a downed Luftwaffe bomber, left in place to prove the point that the RAF was doing its job. 

The fact that I never felt like "oh, another bombing scene" as I read this book shows Larson was able to do what many authors focusing on WWII have not been able to do for me before. I do wish more women would have been shown in more serious roles, and not just in party scenes or only as war observers.  We see Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary, grow up through war times, but I would have loved to have seen Clementine Churchill (his wife) more, and other women who, no doubt, played minor but essential roles in history.

4.5 stars for incredible writing and keeping this history-genre adverse reader hooked through 464 pages of wartime grief and triumph. If I were to visit London, I’d be sure to pair this book with a trip to the Cabinet War Rooms (recently renamed Churchill War Rooms), as well as the Imperial War Museum in London.  

Thank you to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for a chance to read this complimentary advanced reader’s copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.
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How long does one year in war last - approximately 600 pages by Erik Larson. This work is a very throughly researched look into the United Kingdom's year of being blitzed by Germany while under PM William Churchill's leadership. The book was marketed as by the author of "Devil in the White City" (one of the books on my All Time Top 10 List) however, it would be a fairer comparison had they promoted it by saying by the author of  "In the Gardens of Beasts." It is a perfect book for anyone interested in every WWII manufacturing, military strategy, and personality detail in 1940/41.
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Eric Larson's book on Churchill during the darkest point of World War II is excellent. Bringing in details about Churchill, his family, and his colleagues gives Larson a lot to work with and his narrative draws the reader in quickly and completely. Another must read by Larson!
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This is a very dense book, packing a lot into the story of the first year of Churchill's reign as prime minister and the start of the War against Germany and Great Britain. There are quite a few characters to keep track of, a lot of British government folk I didn't know much about before now. I really liked how Larson added quite a bit from personal diaries, in particular Mary Churchill (their youngest child) and the Mass Observation diaries kept by regular Brits during the war. Another good book with solid historical detail.
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Once again Erik Larson gives readers a gripping tale of nonfiction, this time chronicling Winston Churchill's first year as Prime Minister, as Nazi Germany invaded European countries and persistently bombed Britain. Not only Churchill but also his family, staff, and the many people surrounding him in government are featured. Highly recommended.
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I wanted to love this, but it just didn’t hold my interest like some of the other Larson books. Devil in the White City holds the top spot on my list!!
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Before this I didn’t know much about Churchill - but now I feel like I know both sides of the story. What you see presented and real life. Totally recommend for lovers of history!
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I was somewhat dubious about this book as I had read 2 others by Larson and while I liked them, I hadn't loved them.  Well, this one I truly loved!  He has just the right mixture of history and YOU ARE THERE.  He takes into the private lives and thoughts of all the people surrounding Churchill and of their idiosyncracies as well as his own.  There is information about the planes, the RAF and how they hoped to combat the German Luftwaffe as well as very detailed information (on a more personal level) of the devastation to London of those bombings.

When I finished it, I wish he would have gone on to give us more information about the succeeding years of the war, what it was like when America finally joined in.  Here's hoping there is another tome in the works already, as I know that there had obviously been a complete and thorough research for this book.

It is a long book but definitely worth the time to read it.
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I can see now why so many people love Erik Larson's nonfiction thrillers. "The Splendid and the Vile" was the first book of Mr. Larson's that I have read. I was amazed at the intricate detail Larson put into every part of this book. The book was well researched and contains details from all kinds of records such as diarist's notes, journals from key figure such as Winston Churchill himself, or his many associates and assistants such as Hastings "Pug" Ismay, Max Beaverbrook, and family members such as his daughter Mary Churchill, or his daughter-in-law Pamela Churchill.

The book is not for the faint of heart as it tops out at 585 pages and is so detailed that the vast breadth of it covers Churchill's time as the UK Prime Minister from May 1940 until December 1941, less than two years that spans the time in Britain during the Battle for Britain. This battle consisted of numerous fighter pilot encounters in the skies above the UK and the horrifying air raids and bombings by the German Luftwaffe. These bombings were expected to be a prelude to Germany's ground invasion of the British Isles, which at the outset of his tenure as Prime Minister seemed to be imminent.

Interspersing Churchill's iconic addresses to Parliament and the British people with the events leading up to his rousing speeches is used to great dramatic effect by Larson in recounting the details unfolding throughout his book. All in all, it was a captivating and inspirational book about Churchill's inspiration of a people under great distress from the ceaseless and intensifying attacks not just on military outposts, military manufacturing facilities, but also directly on civilians in London, the nation's capital.

I received this as an eBook from Crown Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review of the title. I did not receive any compensation from either company. The opinions expressed herein are completely my own.
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Do we need another book exploring Winston Churchill and his role as Prime Minister leading up to and during the first year of World War II?  I am not sure that another scholararly  tome would be a welcome addition to the vast number of books that have been published on this subject.  But, Erik Larson has managed to explore this subject by taking a more personal approach to the subject.  By writing this book largely from the information gleaned from journals, and other primary sources he has made this a newsy, gossipy (in the best way) volume.  Told in short chapters, he has managed to synthesize a complex topic into a very approachable , and readable and relatable book.  Highly recommended by this reader!
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THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE is the newest book by Erik Larson who has written a number of award-winning, best-selling non-fiction titles like The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and Dead Wake.  As the "bomber's moon" on the cover conveys, this new work explores the WWII time period and is subtitled "A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz." Even before this book was published (garnering a LibraryReads selection), faculty and staff were asking that we purchase it. Larson deserves all of the praise he receives – he does not flinch from describing the horrors of almost two months' worth of consecutive bombings at night, but balances that with tales of evenings out and quotes from dairies from Churchill's daughter Mary, personal secretary James Colville, and other Londoners. In his note to readers, Larsen comments that he "quickly came to realize that it is one thing to say 'Carry on,' and quite another to do it."  That alone makes this book a particularly relevant and inspiring read in these difficult times.  The details Larsen shares (including Churchill's many speeches ... "I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat" or referring to "their finest hour") are from Churchill's first year as Prime Minister (May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941), prior to America's formal entry into the war. A bleak and lonely time indeed. And yet Churchill and staff persevere. There are excerpts from letters to President Roosevelt, a discussion of the Lend-Lease Act, and accounts of numerous flights over both England and Germany. Filled with accounts of ingenuity, resilience and fortitude, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. It is one of my favorite books of the year and I am definitely recommending it.
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