Cover Image: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile

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Member Reviews

As in his previous titles, there is much more that is splendid about Erik Larson’s latest than there is vile. He makes the figures of eight decades ago real and relatable and current, describing their glory and their foibles. For example, he writes of Churchill that he expected that Hitler would send men to kill him so “he insisted on keeping a Bren light machine gun in the trunk of his car, having vowed on numerous occasions that if the Germans came for him, he would take as many as possible to the grave.” This might certainly seem vile (or, at least, sobering) but it also shows the reader a more authentic portrait than much of the other history I’ve read. As do the passages that speak of Churchill’s affection for his cat Nelson, whom he called “darling!” Hitler gets the same treatment; it turns out that he forbade a famous pilot from being photographed while smoking because he was afraid it would lead other youths to do the same! 

Graciously, for those of us with high-reaching TBR piles, Larson introduces everything from the Spitfire Fund to the shelling of the French Navy to keep it out of German hands in short, exciting chapters that make history feel like a series of quick, bright films. Those who have read extensively about WWII and the Blitz in particular will find the same events told here, but may find those familiar events given a much more human face.
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I’ve done quite a bit of reading on World War II and what led to Hitlers ultimate demise. This book was packed with information that was new to me, regarding Churchill’s first year as prime minister. Larson does an incredible job of giving a detailed account without the book feeling too dense. It’s a fun read, all the while teaching you history. Definitely worth the read and I’ll be reading Larsons other books as well.
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To say that much has been written about World War 2 would be quite the understatement.  Erik Larson manages to bring a unique view to the conflict with, as in all his books, lush immersive prose that transports you back in time.  One of the best books of the year.
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Erik Larson continues his impressive run of fascinating reads. Even when covering an era and subject that feels saturated, Larson's compelling narrative and personal approach brings new life and intrigue.
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This is the account of Winston Churchill's first year as prime minister in 1940-41. The book focuses heavily on the Blitz and the other events related to World War II, but it also looks at Churchill's life during this time. There is an emphasis on the lives of some of Churchill's family and friends, and others who were in his orbit. What I liked best was how Larsen was able to show how life managed to go on during a very difficult time - people got up in the morning (after nightly bombings) and went to work, babies were born, and social events still took place.  It's a very personal look at Churchill's impact during WWII, and WWII's impact on Churchill. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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This is beyond fascinating. Larson is able to create an engaging story from a normally boring topic. The Blitz! Churchill! It's stuff that normally would put me to sleep and yet - I read this book in one weekend, glued to my couch. 

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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This is a very engaging and compelling examination of Great Britain's role as the last line of defense against Hitler's Nazi Germany, with a particular focus on Winston Churchill, his family, and his professional inner circle.  In this book, Larson focuses on a pivotal twelve-month period (May 1940 to May 1941); this narrow focus enables him to delve more fully into the idiosyncrasies and human frailties of the principal decision-makers and those around them.  Ironically, by demythologizing Churchill, his family, and his coterie of advisors and confidants, he ends up pointing up their extraordinary courage, persistence, prudence, and pragmatism--virtues which persist despite the fact that these were human beings under immense pressure.  

The fact that this book presents Churchill and others as fully-drawn characters also makes the work compellingly readable--this is most certainly not a dry tome of mere dates, death tolls, or technical minutia.  My only critique of the book is that there occasionally seemed to be too much detail on tertiary and quaternary characters, but in many cases they eventually ended up being tied back into the main narrative thread, so the attention was mostly justified even though the story seems to wander a bit afield at times.

If readers are looking for a comprehensive history of World War II, or even of England's role in World War II, they will likely be disappointed, but readers seeking a focused window into the personality, thinking and decision-making processes, virtues, and idiosyncrasies of Winston Churchill and those around him will find this an engaging, fascinating, and absorbing read.
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I enjoyed reading this book very much. I found the details of Churchill's everyday life interesting. I've read other Erik Larson books & find him a very thorough, well-researched author & storyteller. I recommended this book to a colleague soon after I finished reading it. She was very excited to learn about it because she's interested in Churchill.
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Erik Larson has a real talent for making non-fiction read like fiction - also seen in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, another excellent book by him. The style of the writing is what initially drew me in: short chapters making for a real page-turner (especially for a relatively long non-fiction book), the use of actual quotations that when put in the right place read like dialogue, excellent description of setting, and the book following the calendar with multiple viewpoints even for the same day.

But the content was also a winner. London during the Blitz is intense and hard to visualize today - and the continue-on attitude of Londoners and the British in general during that time was interesting. Winston Churchill is so gloriously weird - confident, bold, hard to get along with, and an amazing war leader that is probably a large part of why the Allies made it through the war. Even in his favourite blue onesie and silk robes - or entirely nude - he got the job done.

I also liked the connection with the sources. The diaries of private secretary John Colville and Mary Churchill (Winston's daughter) contributed a lot of the thought and the material, and I loved that Larson focused on the "frivolities" that some other biographers tend to avoid, going into their own love lives and parties and feelings as well as their story of the steps through the war years.

Overall, great book, and I realize I need to find more of Larson's work!
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I thought this was pretty great. It did a wonderful job of delving into Churchill's personality, what was going on in both England and Germany, and Churchill's family life while creating a cohesive narrative. I was entertained and learned a lot. Definitely a worthwhile read if you're interested in history.
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Erik Larson makes history come alive and I have enjoyed every book he has written. This is no exception. This time he focuses on Winston Churchill and his first year as Prime Minister, 1940-1941. The Battle of Britain is a pivotal time for Britain and fears that Germany will overtake them as they have taken Europe are very real. Churchill is the one to lead them through these dark days. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" August 20, 1940.
Using diaries and newly unclassified sources, that year comes to life. The lives of Churchill, his family and those in his inner circle show us how each faced the crisis and I came away with a whole new perspective of Churchill and what he and Britain went through. A must read.
My thanks to the publisher, Crown and to NetGalley for giving me an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.
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Even if you do not know much about Churchill and his greatness, get comfortable and get ready to tuck in to this epic read for a while. This un-putdown-able book follows Churchill for only one year, but the detail and suspense makes it addictive. Erik Larson never fails to bring history to life.
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A harrowing year of raids over England displayed stalwart courage but came at a terrible cost: nearly 45,000 were killed, over 52,000 injured, and entire city blocks destroyed.

How could the population bear the uncertainty and fear of the relentless attacks? In 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘱𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘝𝘪𝘭𝘦: 𝘈 𝘚𝘢𝘨𝘢 𝘰𝘧 𝘊𝘩𝘶𝘳𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘭, 𝘍𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘺, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘋𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘋𝘶𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘻, Larson argues that Winston Churchill modeled a dauntlessness that rallied the public. He presents an intimate look at Churchill’s inner circle during that trying year as he ramped up war production, buoyed public morale, and attempted to gain the support of the United States.

Using historical documents, including the diaries of Mary, Churchill’s youngest daughter, and John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries, Larson presents both the overarching events of the year and also the very private events—the love affairs, financial woes, changing moods and idiosyncrasies—that persist even in times of war. He also relies on the journals of the Mass Observation project to convey the impact of the conflict on ordinary citizens. 

Despite the existing accounts of Churchill, I felt like I was reading something entirely new because of the framing and details Larson utilizes. The text is rich and engaging with a definite sense of humor. I learned things about Rudolf Hess’s trip to Scotland and about the negotiations between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Anyone interested in World War II should read this but beyond that, anyone interested in a exemplary, well-constructed history will appreciate it as well.
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This is a richly detailed account of Winston Churchill's first year as Prime Minister of Britain beginning in May, 1940, as France fell to the Germans and World War II was heating up. It includes stories about his family, friends, and staff, his dealings with President Roosevelt, and what life was like in London and outlying areas during the nearly nightly bombing raids. One comes to understand the meaning of perseverance in the face of adversity! It's an enthralling read and a very personal glimpse into the life of a great leader. Highly recommend. 

I received an arc of this new book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for the opportunity!
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4-1/2 stars:  If you are a history buff, you will absolutely love this book.  Through this author’s words, you could feel the urgency, you could feel the panic and desperation that those air raids produced.   You heard stories of people making plans to commit suicide, because they lived under the ever constant threat of being invaded by the Germans.  There was a horrific story of a boat load of children being shipped to Canada only to have their ship targeted by a submarine and all lives were lost at sea!  Churchill was a brilliant strategist, but in my humble opinion,  he was the heartbeat of England during the war!   His speeches were so moving   …spectacular!  But it was his one liners that really catch you off guard - there was many a time I caught myself laughing out loud with one of his witty remarks!    I did spend a good portion of the book looking up its and bits of items that had interest me.  You have to look up what a siren suit is and then picture Churchill dancing around in his powder blue “romper”!  Priceless! This novel truly gives you an “birds eye view” of the devastation and hell the British people went through in that first year of war.  This book was well researched  - the amount of data had to be mind boggling!    

I would like to thank the author, the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel in return for an honest and unbiased review.  I would rate this book a solid 4-1/2 stars
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“If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.” 

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today. 

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill. 

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent end notes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either. 

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way. 

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.” 

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose. 
There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them. 

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further. 

Highly recommended.
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I thoroughly enjoyed White City by Erik Larson so when The Splendid and the Vile became available I was excited I was given a copy to review! 

Who is the most well known British leader that fought so hard for freedom during WWII that there are quotes galore on great leadership and the way to unite during tragedy?  Winston Churchhill.  Erik Larson gives us an in-depth look at what it takes to win a war, give us the quirks that Churchhill was famous for although not worldwide known to the youth of today. 

I hadn't known a lot about Churchill's family so this was a great educational read for me. This is history written so well that it is smooth, easy to imagine and given to his readers by one of the great writers of the times. This is Non-fiction for those who don't like to read Non=fiction.

Thank you for letting me read this book in lieu of my honest review.
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Once again Larson makes history come alive, this time choosing as his canvas the first year of Winston  Churchill's tenure as Prime Minister, during the Blitz. Military history is the background for an intimate portrait of  Churchill and those in his orbit: family members, secretaries, and ministers alike. It's a rousing story combined with a nuanced character study. 

The book is a captivating tale of a  period of crisis and the remarkable person perfectly suited to handling it.
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The world of London and Winston Churchill comes gloriously to life in this account gleaned from Churchill's records and diaries from those around him.
These chapters alternate with exploring Hitler's Germany and those in conflict with Hitler's vile reign.  Erik Larson is masterful at showing Winston Churchill's humanity, strong leadership, and why he is credited with saving democracy.
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Readers can count on Erik Larson for attention-grabbing history books. The Splendid and the Vile, his new account of the Churchill family during the year of the London Blitz, is true to form. 

Larson’s opening A Note to Readers explains how his move to post-9-11 New York taught him how differently native New Yorkers experienced the attacks than those who experienced the nightmare from afar through the media. This realization made him wonder how Londoners coped with the 1940-1941 German aerial attacks night after night, especially as the bombardment intensified.  “In particular,” Larson writes, “I thought about Winston Churchill:  How did he withstand it?  And his family and friends?  What was it like for him to have his city bombed for nights on end and to know full well that these air raids, however horrific, were  likely only a preamble to far worse, a German invasion from the sea and sky, with parachutists dropping into his garden, panzer tanks clanking through Trafalgar Square, and poison gas wafting over the beach where once he painted the sea.”  Determined to find out, Larson “quickly came to realize that it is one thing to say ‘Carry on,’ quite another to do it.” 

Despite the extensive biographical and historical accounts preceding The Splendid and the Vile, Larson set out to write “a more intimate account that delves into how Churchill and his circle went about surviving on a daily basis: the dark moments and the light, the romantic entanglements and debacles, the sorrows and laughter, the odd little episodes that reveal how life was really lived under Hitler’s tempest of steel.”

In Part One: The Rising Threat, Larson establishes an historical context for the blitz.  From the dirigibles that dropped bombs over England in WWI and 1930s predictions that expanding air power would  someday turn London into “one raving bedlam” to Hitler’s invasion of the Low Countries and France and Churchill’s realization that England would be next, Larson begins to show Churchill’s fears.  Even the successful British rescue operation from the beaches at Dunkirk led the new Prime Minister to observe, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”  He realized that Germans could employ a “mirror image” of the British strategy--a similar flotilla of small boats to land soldiers by the thousands on British soil.  With his efforts to secure American support falling on deaf ears in Washington, Churchill realized England lacked the manpower and equipment to repel German sea or air invasion. The day after Churchill’s rousing speech to Parliament designed to encourage and bolster confidence, the first German bombs exploded near Devon, Cornwall, and Gloucestershire, fortunately doing little damage, yet signaling that worse would come.

From this opening section through the end of the book, political tensions and night bombing terrors increase, relieved now and then by the events of daily life, by family, friends, colleagues, pets, funny stories, and love affairs.  As he dramatizes the events that lay waste to much of London and killed thousands, Larson presents not only his “personal Churchill,” but also new insights into Churchill family members and associates.  One such associate is John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary.  “Every Churchill scholar has quoted the diaries of John Colville,” Larson writes, “but it seemed to me that Colville wanted to be a character in his own right, so I tried to oblige him.” 

In the Epilogue:  As Time Went By, Larson leaves the London Blitz behind to tell what happened to several of the less well-known players in his Churchill story—people such as his daughter Mary, his Personal Secretary John Coleman, daughter-in-law Pamela and American lover Averell Harriman, and others. Although going beyond the book’s scope, this was a nice touch, satisfying the curiosity of readers about what happened to these figures, each with his or her own contribution.

Perhaps Larson best reveals his secret to success when he speaks of “looking at the past through a fresh lens,” a perspective through which he adds, “you invariably see the world differently and find new material and insights even along well-trodden paths.”

As a long-time Erik Larson fan, I can only wonder what new historical topic he may have already begun examining through a fresh lens.

Many thinks to Crown/Random House, Net Galley, and author Erik Larson for providing an Advance Reader Copy.
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