“Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks

This has been on my TBR for a long, long time, and many people have recommended it to me over the years. It starts in 1910, and follows Stephen, a young Englishman who has travelled to Amiens in France on business, and falls in love with Isabelle, the wife of the man whose house he is staying in. Six years later, we catch up with Stephen on the battlefields of France in the first world war, in the battle of the Somme, and later at Ypres. Interspersed between Stephen’s story, we also follow the story of his granddaughter in England, 1978, as she discovers his war diaries and finds out more about his life.

This was a real page turner of a story. After the bright Continue reading

“William – An Englishman” by Cicely Hamilton

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and I had no idea what it was about before I started it. It’s the first book in the Persephone catalogue, and that’s the only reason I’d bought it.

It tells the story of William Tully, who we meet at the start of the book where he is working as a clerk in 1910s London. After the sudden death of his mother, he finds himself comfortably off and is able to use his new freedom to find his place in society, and begins to follow his Socialist ideologies, where he meets Griselda, fighting for the Suffragette cause, and the two marry. Their honeymoon takes them to the Belgian Ardennes on the eve of the first World War, and their lives change forever.

The writing is superb. It’s clean, crisp, and describes with vivid realism the futility and horror of war from the perspective of ordinary people. I can’t tell you the impact it’s had on me, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Although there is a certain detachment in the prose, you can feel the anger of the author coming through, and after finishing the book, I’ve looked up a bit more about it and found out she was a suffragette herself before working in a hospital in France during the war, and wrote this novel in 1918, so she has first hand experience of the war itself.

The protagonist starts the book as an innocent having lived under his mothers influence, and is malleable enough to be drawn into the socialism movement, and initially I felt he was quite weak willed, but as the story progresses, you being to see how the experiences shape him, and in particular how one day changes his life and his outlook forever, and how he matures as a man. The conclusion of the story is sudden but fitting, and I found the final paragraph incredibly moving.

I’ve read more war books this past year than I’ve probably ever read, both fiction and non-fiction, but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. An outstanding novel.

“Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons

Date finished: 27th December 2011

I didn’t realise until I was about to buy it, that Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons was actually a collection of short stories. I’ve become a fan of short story collections in recent years, so it was a delight to find a collection by Gibbons, as I loved Cold Comfort Farm when I read it a few years ago, and have been wanted to read more of her work, so to match up the author and the short story was a festive bonus.

Although the first story and the title story are both based around the Christmas holiday, the rest of the collection aren’t, however they all have a theme of love, whether it’s finding a new love, rekindling an old love, unexpected love or unrequited love, and all set in the homes and lives of the middle classes in the period between the wars.

Each story seems to have a recurring theme of a person (usually a woman) who appears to be a stereotype of a “certain type”, with their assigned role in society, but each one of them shows a strength of character to show the depth of themselves as an individual. Considering the period in which the stories are written, it was a delight to read of women who were strong and independent, and who had careers as well as wives and mothers, and interesting to look at how even in the 1930s, there was an ongoing dialogue about whether women could have both careers and families, and the balance within their lives.

Gibbons style of writing is very easy to read, with the flavour of writing of that period (the book was originally published in 1940), and has warmth and wit running through it, and I absolutely loved it. I will definitely be coming back to read more of her work.

“I Capture The Castle” by Dodie Smith

A very English novel, written at a time when there was no genre called “Young Adult” and books were either for children or adults, and playwright Dodie Smith wrote this, her first novel and a story of teenagers and first love told by Cassandra about her eccentric family. Living in a gradually crumbling castle, her widowed father has remarried, but is struggling with writers block, leaving the family in financially dire straits.

I’d heard lots of people talk with affection for this book, so I’d settled in for a good read when I picked up my copy for my reading group, but I actually found it quite an unsettling read. Although the narrator says how old she is on the first page, I’d actually forgotten this fairly quickly, and struggled to place her. At times she seemed to talk as a young teenager, and at other times she spoke of things as though she was bordering on adulthood and in her late teens. And I didn’t only struggle with Cassandra, I also had problems with other members of the family. Her younger brother was spoken of as a child initially, then towards the end of the book, it seems as though the author suddenly needed him to be almost an adult, and he is shoe-horned into the plot with knowledge of psychiatric principles!

I didn’t like the development of the relationships between Rose and Cassandra with Simon and Neil, it all felt too staged and predictable, but I wonder if this was more original at the time it was written, and I’ve read many other books and seen films since which have similar stories.

An uneven narrative and I didn’t find any humour in the book which others have commented on. I didn’t feel satisfied by the book, and felt a bit discomforted by some of the story, and overall, I just didn’t enjoy it.

“Catcher In The Rye” by J. D. Salinger

The ultimate teenage book of angst and disaffection, this book is a glimpse into the life of student Holden Caulfield, who after just being expelled from school, takes the opportunity to spend a few days away from home and school, and consider his life and future.

This is one of those books that I’d always meant to read, but never quite got round to it, so when it came up on the Rory Gilmore book challenge, it seemed a good opportunity to make a start on it. Written in an informal manner, it reads like an intimate conversation with the author, full of the contemporary slang of the period. Holden is a disaffected youth, still mourning the loss of his brother, and making that transition from adolescence to adulthood.

There isn’t really a plot as such, the book is more of a snapshot of a few days in Holden’s life, albeit a few days when he considers the state of his life and shares his thoughts with the reader. It means the story doesn’t have a defined beginning or conclusion, and doesn’t provide any resolution, but I felt it left me with enough insight to make my own conclusions as to where Holdens’ life would go in the future.

It’s not a bad book, and I can completely understand how this book talks to teenagers, and still continues to, but I still didn’t enjoy it. I suspect I came to it too late, and have long since put the confusion and disdain of my youth behind me, and couldn’t quite connect with Holden as a character.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

This is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never quite got round to it, but with the 50th anniversary coverage recently and its inclusion on the Rory Gilmore Book Challenge, it seemed like now was as good a time as any to give it a go.

I have to admit, I’ve never seen the film in full yet I still somehow had managed to have some preconceived ideas about this book. I’d assumed it was entirely about the trial in which a white lawyer defends a black man accused of attacking a white girl in America’s Deep South of the 1930s. What I actually got was the tale of Scout, the young daughter of widowed attorney Atticus Finch, and her brother Jem growing up in a small town. The friendships they make, the society around them, the forward thinking father and the trial is just a small part of the story, although the build up to it and the consequences of it, have a huge impact on the lives of the Finch family.

There are many themes dealt with throughout the book, including racism, gender roles and class, but all discovered through the eyes of a child, giving an innocence to the style and an unprejudiced honesty to the narrative. Atticus Finch is perhaps the greatest father in literary history, with Scout portraying him as an easy going and almost remote parent, what he actually does is provide the children with the building blocks they need to become independent, just, fair individuals who understand the importance of standing up for what you believe in.

If you haven’t read this book, I would definitely recommend you do. Not because it’s a “classic”, but because it’s a marvellous piece of storytelling, and a wonderful read.

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … the famous first line of Rebecca gives you an enticing glimpse of what it to come in this story of a young woman who in her first job as a companion, meets Maxim de Winter, and soon finds herself married to the widower and mistress of the house – Manderley. But the house holds the secrets of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, and the ghost of their marriage haunts the new Mrs de Winter, never allowed to forget her husband’s past by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.

Initially, it took me a while to get used to, as it’s quite dense prose in a style that was contemporary to the period when it was written, but after a few chapters I got used to it and was not only finding it easier to read, but I was completely gripped. The story is riveting and I was sure I could see what was happening and where it was going, but there was a revelation at the end of chapter 19 that left me reeling and the story suddenly took off in a whole new direction I was not expecting.

A compelling read. I will definitely be looking to read more du Maurier in the future.