Recommendsday: World War-set novels

It was Remembrance Day last week, and Remembrance Sunday at the weekend, which got me thinking about my favourite novels set during one or other of the two world wars. And so here we are with a recommendsday featuring some of them.

The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

I’ve mentioned before that I did a war literature module as part of my A Levels and read the entire reading list, because I got got so sucked into it all, and the first novel in this trilogy, regeneration, was one of those – and I went on to read the other two as well. This centres on a doctor at a hospital treating shellshocked soldiers near Edinburgh and how he tried to help the soldiers come to terms with what they have endured and his conflicted feelings about getting them fit enough to be sent back to the front.

I could write a whole post based on that A Level reading list about the First World War. but I’m going to restrain myself and move on…

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Ok, I’ve only moved on as far as stuff I first read when I was at university, but this is also really good. And it’s a modern classic that I’ve actually read and enjoyed and kept hold of. Yossarian is part of a bomber group stationed in Italy, where the number of missions you need to fly to complete your service keeps going up. The catch 22 of the title is the rule that dictates that anyone who continues to fly combat missions is insane – but as soon as he makes a formal request to be removed from duty it proves he is sane.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

This was one of my favourite books of the year in 2018, although it didn’t get a full review at the time – just the mention in the end of year post.  This is a sequel to the Five Children and It – although obviously by a different author. The five are now mostly grown up five and their younger sister has only ever heard of the Psammead in stories, until he reappears for one last adventure with the youngest two siblings that will change them. This is a middle grade novel and Kate Saunders has done a wonderful job of creating a world that feels like it is the likely successor to the Edwardian Idyll of the original books and showing the realities of the Great War to a younger audience and a new generation.

And then let’s move on to the stuff I have already recommended. The Skylark’s War like Five Children on the Western Front will break your heart. On the Second World War sid, there is The House on Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams, Dear Mrs Bird by S J Pearce (and its sequel Yours Cheerfully), Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey,Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart and V for Victory are in World War Two Two, as To Bed With Grand Music and A House in the Country which were written during the War itself. The Maisie Dobbs series hits World War Two in book 13, but several of the earlier books in the series deal with the Great War and Maisie’s experiences in it. Equally some of my favourite books in the Amelia Peabody series are set in the Great War and some of the most exciting developments in the series happen in them – Ramses I’m looking at you!

Happy Wednesday!


Bookshelfie: A whole lot of Viragos

I mean this does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – although I hadn’t quite realised that that was what I had created until I started looking at it for this post. The Angela Thirkells I have already written about – and I’m still annoyed that the spines don’t all match, even if the covers do – and the Nancy Spains have had more than one mention too as Death Goes on Skis was a Book of the Week, Cinderella goes to the morgue was in last week’s recommendsday and Poison for Teacher was in the boarding schools post. There’s a little collection of plays at the far end, and then it’s what you could loosely term my A Level reading favourites. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was on my A Level summer reading list in the summer of sixth form and I thought it was so brilliant that I went out and brought all the other volumes – and carried on buying Maya Angelou’s new stuff as it came out. And then I also studied First World War Literature and read the whole extended reading list of novels – and these are the bits I kept because they spoke to me the most. Except that I’ve lost my copy of Goodbye to All That in one of my moves and I’m refusing to replace it until I find the edition I used to have or a prettier one. I can’t help myself like that. The only other things on there are Diary of a Provincial Lady and Frost in May, both of which are going to get bumped if many more Thirkells or Nancy Spains appear! It’s a classy shelf of excellent books that I don’t feel like I have to justify if people spot them. And yes, I know, I shouldn’t feel that I have to justify my reading but sometimes people make you feel like you do.

books, memoirs

Missing books

Do you know when you can’t find a book and it’s really annoying you? In last week’s Bookshelfie I spoke about the fact that I didn’t have to even check the shelves much to know what was on there. And no, I don’t know all of my shelves that well, but I do know where roughly most of my books should be. So when stuff is not there it gets frustrating.

I used to loan books out a fair bit in the before times, but then I would forget who had what and end up with missing books or duplicate copies. You may remember when my copy of Gone with the Windsors went awol and it was A Drama. I have three copies now because I cried about it on Twitter and Laurie Graham saw it and sent me one, which was too nice to read and so I bought another copy of it and then I got the original one back as well. So now I have three copies and I started a list of who I had loaned what to. Which helps. But occasionally, there’s a book that I can’t find and I don’t know why.

At the moment it’s Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It was one of the extended reading list books for my A Levels – where we did a module on War Literature. I read all the books on that list. And for years while I was at university and slightly beyond, my copy of Goodbye to All That lived on the bookshelf that ran across my bedroom wall above the door with the other books from that module. Then when I moved into my own house I took all the books with me. Well I did a bit of a weed. But of that collection of books from that module, the only one I ditched was Testament of Youth. Because I hated it.

So now they lived on the downstairs bookshelf at the old house. And it should be on the same bookshelf now. But it’s not. And it’s really annoying me. Especially since my copy of Strange Meeting returned to base the other week (even if my mum didn’t realise it was mine, despite the fact my name was written in the front of it!). So where have I put it? And what do I do? I could buy a new copy, but it wouldn’t be the same edition – and I want the same edition. And of course if I do, the original one could turn up. Although I’ve been waiting for years for my copy of Regeneration to turn up as it was one of a matching set and it hasn’t yet so what do I know.

Maybe the act of writing this will magic my copy back to me? It’s a turn of the century small paperback sized Penguin one, with the black and white photo of the trenches on the front. It’s completely the wrong size for all the other books from that module, but I don’t care because it’s the *right* version for me. Thanks.

Authors I love, Best of..., book round-ups

Best books of 2018

It’s nearly the end of the year and I promised you some extra posts looking back at the year didn’t I?  Well, here’s my look at five of my favourite books of the year.  Looking back on my Goodreads stats to write this, I realise that I’ve been very stingy with the 5 stars this year – which has made this very tricky to write because there are a lot of 4 star ratings and I’ve had to workout which ones were my real favourites.  And because of the way this blog works, you’ve heard about most of these before – either as Books of the Week or in other roundup posts – because when I like stuff this much, I tell you about it!

A Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Copy of Another Day in the Death of America

This was part of my pre-Washington reading and although I read a lot of good books in that particular reading jag, this one has really stuck with me.  A snapshot of all the children and teens killed by guns on just one day in America, it is meticulously researched and will break your heart.  If you are in any doubt about the scale of gun deaths in the US, this will put it all into perspective -this is just a normal day – no mass shootings, just ten dead young people ranging in age from 9 to 19.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Paperback copy of Five Children on the Western Front

Lets get all the sad books out of the way to start with.  This is a middle grade continuation/follow on to E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It book.  I think I read the 5 children (maybe even more than one of them) after the 1990s BBC TV series was shown and it had never occurred to me that these were the children who would be the young men and women of the Great War – and of course when Nesbit was writing the books, she had no idea what was in their future either.  This is really, really good, but also quietly devastating. There are a lot of Second World War middle grade books, but not so many (or at least not that I’ve come across) Great War ones – this is a very good addition to the genre.  It came out a couple of years ago, but reading it this year with the centenary of the Armistice, felt very timely.  It wasn’t my BotW at the time -I was in a historical crime groove back in at the start of the year, but I’ve recommended it a few times since and it’s quietly crept up my list of best reads of the year.

The Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel

Copy of Victory Disc

The third in the Vinyl Dectective series is right up there as one of my favourite detective stories of the year.  This time our unnamed hero is on the hunt for records by a wartime swing band.  The Flarepath Orchestra were contemporaries of Glenn Miller, but their recordings are incredibly rare.  After one pops up unexpectedly, the Detective and his gang are asked to track down the rest.  But there are still secrets and lies at the heart of the band and soon a great deal of danger is threatening the gang.  This wasn’t a Book of the Week at the time – because it’s the third in the series and you’ll get the most from them by reading them in order.  The first in the series, Written in Dead Wax was a BotW last summer though – and I thoroughly recommend starting with that.  My Dad has read these and practically snaps my hand off to get the next one from me!  Good reads doesn’t have any details for a fourth yet, but I’m hoping that we’ll get more adventures in vinyl in 2019.

Anyone for Seconds by Laurie Graham

Regular readers know how much I love Laurie Graham (and if you don’t, here are the posts to prove it) but I remember saying to a friend before this came out that if she was going to write a sequel to one of her novels, this wasn’t the one that I would have picked.  How wrong I was, because this is my favourite of her contemporary novels in ages.  It snuck out a bit under the radar in August and I nearly missed it. We rejoin Lizzie Partridge, the heroine of Perfect Meringues, some twenty years after we last met her.  Lizzie was a TV-chef on the regional news, but after The Incident she has mostly worked in print.  But when her last paying gig is pulled, Lizzie decides to run away in the hope that it’ll get her some attention.  But no-one notices.  It does however, set in train a series of changes in Lizzie’s life.  It was a BotW and it’s still one of my favourites this year.

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

It was a long wait for a new book by Jasper Fforde – my big Fforde discovery and binge actually happpened before I started this blog, but Early Riser was worth it and it was a BotW.  Set in a world where humans hibernate for four months every winter, this follows the adventures of one man in his first year as a Winter Consul – one of the people who watch over the sleeping masses.  This is completely standalone from his other books, but if you’ve read other Fforde novels you’ll spot that this world has some elements in common with Thursday Nexts.  It’s fantasy and sci-fi but at the end of that spectrum that I like.

The Birth of South Korean Cool by Euny Hong

Copy of the Birth of Korean Cool

And another non-fiction book to round out this list.  Euny Hong’s family moved back to South Korea in the 1980s when she was at school so she is ideally placed to take a look at how South Korea turned itself into a big name on the world stage through the course of twenty years. This is a really, really interesting and readable guide to the Korean pop-culture phenomenon and the policy behind it. Although some of the section dealing with North Korea is now slightly dated that doesn’t detract from the overall impact of the book. I would happily have read another 100 pages.   It had been on my to-read list for ages – but I finally got around to getting hold of a copy after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at the start of the year (although it took me another few months to get around to reading it!). I’ve recommended it a number of times – and used knowledge I learned from it to look smart when talking about K-pop with younger colleagues.  A winner all around!

Let me know what your favourite books of the year have been in the comments – and coming up over the next few days we’ve also got my reading obsessions of the year – and how 2017’s obsessions have lasted as well as the books that I’m looking forward to in 2019.So here you are, six of my favourite reads of 2018.  There were a few five star reads this year that aren’t on the list – but they are very much from favourite authors – new installments in the Wells and Wong series and from Gail Carriger and the Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang that I’ve already talked about so much already over the years that I’d be boring you to tell you about them again.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week

Book of the Week: Bleakly Hall

Welcome to the first Book of the Week post of 2016!  I really enjoyed writing these last year – and find that having to pick a favourite book each week really helps to focus the mind – not just about what I like and don’t like about books, but also about what I chose to read from the pile.  It doesn’t stop the bingeing on one author, but it does mean I try to add some variety in – after all a BotW from the same author each week would get very dull very quickly.  And speaking of binge-reading, there’ll be a post coming up at the weekend about the Pink Carnation series – which is one of the reasons why one of the three Lauren Willigs I read last week isn’t occupying this spot now!

So, Bleakly Hall.  This has been on the pile for over 2 years (!) – and had been on my radar for some time before that.  I think it’s another that was mentioned in the Emerald Street book section (where I’ve found several really interesting books) which I then added to my Amazon pile to wait for the price to come down (although in the end it came from Waterstones who must’ve been doing a deal judging by the prices) which is what happens to a lot of books.  Anyway, you all know about the state of my to-read pile and the less said about it the better.

Bleakly Hall
This is my best attempt at artistic. I polished the wood specially.

Bleakly Hall is a hydroprathic spa, populated by a cast of misfits and damaged people after the Great War.  New nurse Monty has taken a job there because she has a score to settle with Captain Foxley.  The Captain is there because he served with one of the two brothers who own it.  The other brother came back from the war minus his legs and now has a matrimonial problem on his hands.  Ada worked with Monty during the war – and misses the purpose and status it gave her. The residents are elderly, thin on the ground and not conducive to a health bank balance for the owners.  And then there’s the ominous noises from the pipes…

I read a lot of books set in and around the First World War as part of my A-Level English literature and the period has continued to fascinate me in the intervening years (no, I’m not telling you how many years) and so this book was right up my street.  I’m particularly fascinated with the aftermath of the war* and how it affected people so I found the characters in this fascinating.  And they are a bit of a microcosm of post-war society – people want nothing to have changed, people for whom everything has changed, others for whom everything has changed, but in a different way and then those who would quite like the war back in some ways.

This is quite black in places – there are moments that will make you laugh and then there are moments of horror.  The spa is damp and run down and there’s comedy in the treatments and quackery provided and then there are the flashbacks to Belgium and the carnage of the trenches.  The two are nicely balanced – and sometimes you realise you are still chuckling over the latest antics at the spa but you’re in the trenches and really shouldn’t be laughing.

I enjoyed (if you can call it that) Bleakly Hall – and got a lot out of it.  If you’ve read the usual Great War suspects – like Goodbye to All that, Regeneration, Testament of Youth etc – then this might be a good place to go next.  It’s available on Kindle, at Amazon (where there are some good second-hand prices), Waterstones and Foyles.

* It’s one of the aspects of Lord Peter Wimsey‘s character that I find really interesting, as is Daisy’s search for a career and a new future after the war and the changes it brought in Carola Dunn’s early Daisy Dalrymple books.


Remembrance Day Reading Recommendations

It’s the 11th day of the 11th month today – and as always we remember those who gave their lives fighting in conflicts.  Sitting on my to-read pile is The Five Children on the Western Front – Kate Saunders’ sequel to the Five Children and It which I’m hoping to get around to soon (nightshift brain permitting) as we continue through this centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War.  I’ve read a fair few books this year that have a World War One setting – and have more still to read – but today I wanted to concentrate on the books written by the people who were there – who were writing from first hand experience.  I first encountered these books during my War Literature module at A Level – but they still sit on my shelves now, more than a decade later.  I’m not going to say much about any of them – just take it from me that they’re powerful and worth reading if you haven’t already.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – The Great War from the German Side of the Trenches.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves – this was my favourite of all the books I read for this module at the time, and it’s been too long since I read it.  I keep meaning to go back and reread Robert Graves’ autobiography which covers a much wider period than the war and also introduces a lot of characters who pop up in other accounts – contemporary and modern.

Siegfried Sasson’s George Sherston Books are a semi-biographical account of his life and his time in the British Army.  This gives a real sense of the Edwardian world which was shattered by the war as well as the conflict itself.

I’ve ummed and ahhed about including Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth because I detested this book when I read it at 17.  But I know I am in the minority and many others  have been profoundly moved by this account of the impact of the great war on a young woman.

If you are all Great War-ed out – then may I point you in the direction of Helen Forrester’s Lime Street at Two – the fourth book telling the story of her poverty-stricken life in Liverpool which deals with the worst of World War II.  Really I think you should read the whole lot (starting with Twopence to Cross the Mersey) but this is well worth reading alone.  I was 10 when I first read it (there or there abouts) and cried buckets and then appropriated one of my mother’s shopping bags and tried to draw lines up the back of my legs and pretended to be her for several days.

And if you have children, then Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom and Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War had a massive impact on me as a child and really brought home to me the reality of World War II.

Never Forget.

historical, reviews

Review: The Storms of War

Finishing off a busy week over here on the blog with a review of Kate Williams’ The Storms of War – which I started during #Sunathon and has taken me longer to read than you’d expect considering how much I enjoyed it – because of the fact that it’s a hardback and I can’t lug it around with me on the train.

Firstly, I love a good saga – I worked my way through Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Woman of Substance trilogy when I was 16 (back when it was still a trilogy!) and then moved on to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books, which I adored – so this looked just up my street, especially when you consider that I studied First World War Literature for my A-Level English Literature.

Storms of War
It’s a big hardback – but it’s got such a pretty cover

So, the plot:  The de Witts are an Anglo-German family, who, at the start of the Great War, are preparing for the marriage of their eldest daughter to a member of the English Nobility.  Rudolph, the father, is from Germany and has made his money through meat factories.  Verena, the mother, is the daughter of a lord and they have four children Michael, Emmeline, Celia and Arthur (who is away from home at the start of the war).  The book follows them through the war, as Rudolph suddenly becomes an outcast in the country he considers his home and the children face not only the consequences of that – but the effects of the war in general.

I really enjoyed this – as I’ve already said on Twitter – I would describe it as Cazalets do World War One, but with added tensions caused by the family’s German links.  The characters were interesting and engaging and having read a lot of books about World War One over the years, both novels and non-fiction, their experiences seemed realistic and rang true with what I have read – which to be honest is only what you’d expect as Kate Williams is a “proper” historian.  The fresh angle here is that Anglo-German twist that I’ve already mentioned – and I thought that was handled really well.  Book two is promised for next year – and I look forward to seeing how the family fares in the post-Great War world.  I foresee interesting possibilities – particularly as there are ends left untied here and a development at the very end of the book creates potential for fresh conflict within the family.

I’ve read some of Kate Williams’ historical biographies in the past – but it was a few years ago and I found the writing style a little harder to get on with than some others in that genre.  This, however is an absolute joy to read – and very difficult to put down (despite its size!) – and it has inspired me to bump one of her other books that’s still sitting on the to-read pile up to the top of the list.  The front cover has a quote from Alison Weir recommending it to fans of Downton Abbey and although I think that’s a bit of a simplistic view of the market for this book, I think that it is a great way of getting people to pick up what is a large and intimidating looking hardback.

There’s a wealth of books about World War One out there (and lots of new ones appearing at the moment because of the anniversary) so there are lots of other books to read if you like this – I’ve already mentioned the Cazalets which is a slightly later period, but is a similar sort of family saga – but there are also books like Pat Barker’s Regeneration and a wealth of accounts written by people who lived through the Great War – like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That.

Kate Williams’ The Storms of War should be in all good bookshops – as the phrase goes – and here are my traditional links to Foyles for the hardback and Amazon for the more portable Kindle edition. This is the sort of book I always want an actual copy of though – as I know I’ll want to lend it to my mum and sister if it’s any good.