“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

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“The Hare With The Amber Eyes” by Edmund De Waal

The Hare With The Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal is the story of how an inherited collection of netsuke (small ornamental carved pieces traditionally used to attached an object such as a purse to the belt of a kimono) originally came into the ownership of his family, but gradually becomes the history of his family from the last 19th century to date.

I received this as a Christmas present from Continue reading

“The Children’s Book” by A. S. Byatt

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt follows a handful of families in the late Victorian period and through to the end of World War I. The mother of one of the families, Olive Wellwood, is a children’s author and throughout the lives of her own children, she writes them each their own personal storybook, and the stories develop as the children grow up.

I want to start by saying I did enjoy this book, it was fascinating with characters I was genuinely interested in, but, I have to say, I have a few gripes about it. Firstly, there are too many characters. I struggled to remember which children belonged to which family, and kept getting them mixed up, Dorothy with Florence or Griselda, Charles with Geraint, and could never remember where Hedda came in the family, and those are just a few of the children in the book.

Secondly, while I understand the author was trying to explain what’s happening in the world as the story develops, there were a few places where the author spent one or two chapters just explaining the history of that period, with no mention of any of the characters. When we discussed this at my reading group, I wondered if I was so irritated by this both because I’d recently read a few books set in the same period that integrated this information into the story of the characters rather than just simply stating it, and because I already knew the history because of my recent reads. The other members didn’t seem too bothered by it, but I felt for a 600+ page book, this could easily have been edited out without losing anything from the story.

Finally, just a couple of small ones, but near the beginning, the daughters of one of the characters are named and described, yet a few pages later when they arrive at the house of one of the other families, they are named and described again. Why do that when you’ve already described them? Also, one of the characters, Charles at times goes by the name of Karl, and is sometimes referred to as Charles/Karl, which I personally found really irritating. I know the times he’s choosing to be called Karl over the times he feels he needs to be Charles, so why the Charles/Karl moniker?

I feel like I need to go back to the good points, for a bit of balance. I loved some of the characters, particularly the girls. Dorothy, Florence and Griselda were believable and genuine, and I think the way she describes the various choices they make and the routes their lives take felt possible. I felt a real affection for them, particularly Dorothy, by the end of the book. Their stories alone would make the book worth reading, but there are others who are interesting as well, making me glad I had read it.

“Fragrant Harbour” by John Lanchester

Date finished: 17th May 2012

Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester tells the story of four different people whose lives have taken them to Hong Kong, but through their lives, Lanchester gives us the history of this city over the last seventy years of the twentieth century.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the book. The first persons story was interesting, but seemingly innocuous, especially when you start to read the second characters, Tom Stewart, story. Tom’s story is the meat on the bones of this book. Escaping from what he predicts would be a stilted, safe life in England, he sails to Hong Kong in the mid-1930s. His adventure starts with a bet on board the ship, which along with the contacts he makes on the journey, springboards him into a successful career in the hotel industry. By the end of the book, the four characters have played a significant part in one or all of the other peoples lives, resulting in an absorbing and fascinating book.

I knew very little about Hong Kong before reading this book, and it was a bit like a crash course in fiction form, but I got completely caught up, particularly in Tom’s life. I loved the style of writing which was very straight forward, and simply told the story, while it felt that the author felt affection for his characters, and I thought it gave heart to the book.

A very enjoyable book, so I’ll be looking out for more books from this author.

“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.

“Now All Roads Lead To France” by Matthew Hollis

Date finished: 5th February 2012

This book was a departure from my usual reading, but a very welcome one. My knowledge of the First World War is very sketchy and I’ve never really got to grips with poetry, but for some reason I was drawn to this biography looking at the final years of the British poet Edward Thomas who died in WWI. The book covers the period from 1913 to his death in 1917, and more than just look at Thomas’s life, it also looks at the literary scene in London at that time. The main story, though, is Thomas’s friendship with American poet Robert Frost, and Thomas’s transition from reviewer and writer of prose to arguably one of the most influential poets of his generation.

This was a fascinating book, and so well written, bringing to life the man and his family and friends, and often focusing on the influence that his great friendship with Frost had on his life. It’s not always an easy read – his bouts of depression and the measures he takes to cope with his relationships with his family are often hard and I felt desperately sorry for Helen, his wife, at times, although she comes across as a very strong woman, who learned to cope in her own accepting way.

As someone who doesn’t read (and on the odd occasion I do, understand) poetry, I was still fascinated during the sections covering the change taking place in the style of verse being written by the new poets of the era, such as Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen and W. B. Yeats. Thomas’s transition to poet was fairly sudden, and ran alongside his ongoing battle with the decision of whether to enlist after the outbreak of the war, but once he had taken the step to become a poet, his poetry seemed to flow almost immediately.

I could go on writing for pages, so I’ll just finish by saying that I rarely finish a biography if I start one, I’ll repeat that I don’t read poetry, and again that I know very little about WWI, but this book was fascinating from start to finish, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“Mr Rosenblum’s List” by Natasha Solomons

Date finished: 28th February 2011

I settled down for what I hoped would be a gentle read with Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons, and I was not disappointed. Jakob Rosenblum, his wife Sadie and daughter Elizabeth manage to obtain exit visas from 1930s Germany, and make their way to England to start a new life. Jakob becomes Jack, and decides the way to make the best of his new life is to assimilate. Inspired by a pamphlet he receives when he arrives in England, he sets about compiling a list of exactly how to be an Englishman. The book follows Jack and Sadie’s lives from the early days in London to their move to Dorset.

The cover and blurb of the book doesn’t really give much away, and I was surprised by the length of period that the book covers, and the direction Jack’s life took, as I have to admit, I was expecting it to cover just the war years, but it goes beyond that. I did know that the author lives in Dorset, and I was expecting the book to be a much more middle of the road, fish out of water, city man gets an allotment and gradually is accepted by the local villagers, and yet it was nothing like that at all!

I found Jack quite a frustrating character at times, but I loved Sadie. Her sadness, and at times anger, was palpable on the page, and her transformation throughout the book felt totally believable.

I did have one complaint, which was that I thought the resolution of one of the golf course storylines was a bit far fetched, and I didn’t quite believe in it, compared to the rest of the story. I can’t explain why without giving away spoilers, but for me, there were a couple of queries over some of the decisions made by some of the characters.

However, this was a very small complaint really, and only affected one chapter of the book, and I think the final chapter made up for it. A very good book that I loved reading.