Tag Archives: World War One

#BookReview ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ by William Boyd #WW1 #spy

Determined to deal with my overflowing to-read shelf, I picked up Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd. Thoughtful with a twisty plot, we follow actor Lysander Rief from Vienna to the trenches as he tries to identify a traitor passing war secrets to the enemy. William Boyd

It is Vienna 1913. Actor Lysander Rief has gone to Vienna seeking help for an intimate problem. In the waiting room he encounters two people who will determine the course of Rief’s life in the forthcoming Great War. Rief falls head over heels in lust with Hettie Bull but when Rief is thrown into prison charged with rape, he feels abandoned. He is extricated from Austria thanks to the help of a shadowy British government officer and Rief’s own ingenuity. But he owes a debt and is drawn into the shadowy world of wartime spies. Someone is sending coded messages about essential infrastructure, supply and troop movements to the enemy, and Rief is charged with hunting down the traitor.

Boyd is one of my favourite writers, his writing flows and there are multiple layers to consider long after finishing the book. All concocted with a skilful touch of humour in the right place. It all starts in the consulting room of Dr Bensimon who suggests that Rief’s delicate problem, based on an unfortunate but funny episode in his youth, can be solved not by drugs or hypnosis but by his own theory of Parallelism. Rief must revisit his memory of the incident and reconstruct the story of what happened so that today his dreams are about the changed story and his little problem stops happening. Smoke and mirrors. Rief, as an actor, is adept at pretending to be what he is not and there are countless characters he meets who do the same. He is good at spotting some people who are acting, but misses others. But unlike on stage, missing the clues can lead to hurt, separation and death. And at stake in the bigger picture of the war are the lives of allied soldiers.

This is a book about deception; lies to others, lies told to oneself. Small lies told for convenience. Big lies told to disguise treason. Along the way, people get hurt.

So much more than a conventional spy thriller from a master author. 4* for me rather than 5* because of the slow beginning. It pays to be patient.

Here are my reviews of other books by William Boyd:-
Any Human Heart
Love is Blind
Sweet Caress
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

… and try the first paragraph of Armadillo.

If you like this, try these:-
Wake’ by Anna Hope
The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
Corpus’ by Rory Clements

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#BookReview ‘The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing’ by @mspaulsonellis #WW1

A group of Great War soldiers is waiting for orders. During the last skirmishes of the war, men are still dying. Will the men receive orders to retreat or advance? Who will live or who will die? There are two strands to The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing by Mary Paulson-Ellis and the title refers to the second. A contemporary man in Edinburgh, an heir hunter, finds a pawn ticket amongst the possessions of Thomas Methven, an old soldier who died alone. Mary Paulson-Ellis

This is a detailed story with many layers and many characters introduced as the two strands are told and hesitantly connected. At times the detail became confusing with so many descriptive repetitions I found myself skipping forwards. Paulson-Ellis writes scenes so well – the soldier’s gambling scene with the chicken is totally believable, and her portrayal of the foundling school in NE England is heart breaking. As Solomon tracks the life story of the deceased soldier, we see flashes of his own story, orphaned at seven and sent to live with his grandfather. Though interesting I found this distracting, it took me away from the story of the soldiers and added even more characters and family trees to remember.

The message is that the debts of the past do not disappear. Captain Godfrey Farthing is waiting, always waiting; to live to die, to advance, to retreat. He is simply trying to keep his men safe to the end of the war, which they suspect may come at any time. But Farthing’s intentions may be wrecked by enemy attack, by orders to attack, or by his own men themselves who are confined and bored. ‘A strange peace was coursing through his veins; that terrible calm that comes when a man knows the end is coming, but not in the way he had imagined when he began.’

Gambling is a continuous theme throughout the WW1 strand, and I lost track of the treasures gambled, won and lost, coveted, stolen and hidden. There are 11 soldiers involved, surely too many. Like The Lord of the Flies, the boredom of the men, their jealousies, petty rivalries and guns come to dominate their world, as if the war is already over. The treasures they gamble can be the smallest thing which to us may seem irrelevant but in war is crucial. Not monetary value as known at home, but representing an emotional or practical value.

Different rules apply during wartime and items that are significant then are cast into the spotlight when they survive across the generations to be found by modern day relatives. I admit to confusion about who was related to who and perhaps the cutting of a few peripheral characters would help. Given my interest in family history and WW1, I expected to love this book but longed for a firmer editing hand.

If you like this, try:-
Life Class’ by Pat Barker
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry
Half of the Human Race’ by Anthony Quinn

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#BookReview ‘Half of the Human Race’ by Anthony Quinn #WW1 #suffragette

Anthony Quinn Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn is a gem of a novel, one to keep and re-read. The front cover illustration suggests it is another Great War love story, but it is so much more than that. In fact the warfare occupies only a hundred or so pages. Rather, it is a character study of England before the war, of suffragettes and cricketers, of a different time, when the demands put on love were extreme.

A new king is being crowned and the protestations of votes for women are taking a violent turn. Set against this background in 1911, we meet the key characters at a cricket match. Connie Calloway is a former medical student who now works in a bookshop after her father’s suicide left her family poorer than they expected to be. Will Maitland is a young county cricketer rubbing shoulders with the great ‘Tam’, AE Tamburlain, as popular as WG Grace. A flicker of attraction carries the pair throughout this story as both consider questions of loyalty and belief and where love fits into the mix. When the ageing Tam’s place in the M−Shire team is threatened, Will must consider whether to support his friend or risk losing his captaincy of the team. Connie, at once thrilled and intimidated as her friend Lily is imprisoned in Holloway for a suffragette demonstration, considers the strength of her belief in votes for women and how far she is prepared to go. When she meets an old school friend, she also must make a decision. The decisions they take govern the direction of their lives as times change and the country edges towards war. Will their attraction burgeon into romance and love? Connie is hardly Will’s mother’s idea of the girl he should marry. She is outspoken and independent, perhaps too much so for Will? Connie’s personality is juxtaposed with her older sister Olivia who, Connie fears, is trading her independence for a rich husband.

Quinn creates two characters of their time and beyond it, that are totally believable, with a surrounding cast of characters including the fascinating Tam, artist Denton Brigstock, cousin Louis and friend Lily. Quinn, obviously a cricket fan, writes with a light hand about the sport and this should not be off-putting for any readers who do not like cricket. It is a key part of the plot and offers a view of a gentleman’s world where codes of behavior and manners are assumed, where tradition rules; similar values are on show later in the book when Will, now Captain Maitland, is waiting for the next big push. When he confronts his commanding officer to query a battle plan, he is more like Connie than he would ever realize.


Half of the Human Race is Quinn’s second novel; on finishing it, I wanted to read everything else he has written. I have read Curtain Call, Freya and Our Friends in Berlin, click to read my reviews.

If you like this, try:-
‘My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You’ by Louisa Young
‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

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#BookReview ‘My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You’ by Louisa Young @rileypurefoy #WW1

Louisa YoungThis is a Great War story of love/war, of duty/self-sacrifice, of denial of the truth and fear of change, of physical/mental scars. At the centre of the story is a lie told to protect. In My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney, children from different classes, meet in a London park. When war is declared, knowing the gulf in their backgrounds prevents them from marrying, Riley volunteers and goes off to war. In the trenches he meets commanding officer, Peter Locke, whose wife Julia and cousin Rose remain at home in Kent throughout the war. This is the story of these five people.

The first half of the book is a long set-up for the second half, when the interesting stuff begins. I made myself continue reading through the first half, and raced through the second. We see Riley and Nadine meeting, Riley’s transition from boy to teenager, his introduction to a new world. Nadine’s father is a famous conductor; their friends include musicians, writers and artists. He is taken under the wing of artist Sir Alfred who introduces him to art and music; good-looking Riley becomes a model for Sir Alfred and, fascinated by drawing and painting, leaves his old world behind. Peter deals with the trauma of the trenches by drinking and whoring, he is tight-lipped and distant with Julia who feels she must be doing something wrong to alienate him so. I found Julia a most unsympathetic character; she has been encouraged to believe in her own prettiness, is unable to break away from her spoiled pre-war life and allows her mother to bully her and remove her baby from her care. Her plain cousin Rose trained as a nurse and, having worked at the front, is now based at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup. Rose, in danger of being a stereotype, later in the story faces a dilemma about patient confidentiality that elevates her character. Riley is promoted through the ranks, popular with the men, knowing the right thing to say, when to josh them along. He is fond of his CO, sees him safely home when he is drunk. One leave, he meets Nadine in London and their friendship is rekindled.

The turning point of the story is war injury and damage, and how everyone reacts to it. This is a serious book, not quite the romantic read it is billed. Particularly excellent are the passages about the Queen’s Hospital and the amazing work of surgeon Major Gillies in facial reconstruction. Some of the descriptive passages are clinical and shocking and are a stark contrast to Julia’s worries about beauty treatments. However there is a lot of internal monologue which became repetitive and I also found the constant swapping of viewpoint mid-paragraph a distraction from the fine historical setting.


If you like this, try:-
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry
‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne

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Book review: Fred’s Funeral

Sandy DayNone of us have the luxury of hearing what is said about us after we are dead. In Fred’s Funeral, Canadian author Sandy Day tells the story of one soldier, returned from the First World War, who felt misunderstood and sidelined by his family. Only when he dies in 1986, seventy years after he went to war, does he observe his own funeral and find out what they really think of him.

Fred Sadler has lived his post-fighting years in one institution or another. Clearly he is suffering from some form of shell shock or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but this goes undiagnosed. There are periods of living in boarding houses, his family is unwilling to have him live with them, until his behaviour deteriorates and he is sent back to hospital. Now dead and trapped as an unwilling ghost, Fred observes his funeral presided over by Viola, the sister-in-law he always disliked. As the mourners sit around and share memories of Fred, he watches, frustration mounting, as he is unable to correct their observations. They portray a ‘Fred Sadler’ which he does not recognise. I kept expecting something to happen; a true memory of the war, an event, which would explain Fred’s illness and set the record straight with his family. But it didn’t come. The story is told in linear fashion; the anecdotes of Viola and the remaining family are interchanged with Fred’s reaction to these stories plus a few flashbacks to the war. Clearer signposting of these sections would make reading easier.

Day clearly captures the time and place of post-Great War Canada, a subject which is new to me. However I found the repeated digressions into the extended family history and details of the lifestyle a distraction from the main story [so many cousins, great-great grandparents and houses]. I so wanted to cut some of these unrelated sections to allow a stronger novel to push its way to the surface; simpler, more powerful. The inclusion of so many family details makes me wonder if the core of Fred’s Funeral is a memoir, inspired by a real family, from which the author feels unable to cut some relations and take the leap into pure fiction.

The portrayal of Fred’s experience at Whitby Hospital for the Insane is heart breaking, as is the disinterest of his family. For them, Fred is an embarrassment. It is a sad indictment of our treatment of soldiers returning from war and our ignorance that the effect of fighting can last a lifetime. It is easy to assume that in the 21st century this has changed, but the modern day strand of Day’s story suggests it hasn’t. It is as if Fred’s life has paused. “He banished feeling anything long ago. He feels timid. He feels tentative, like every step he takes is on a thick layer of ice and at any moment, he might crash through into a frenzy of drowning.”

At the end of the novel, there is no ‘reveal’, no surprise, and I felt a little let down. Overall, this is a thoughtful examination of how family tensions, petty jealousies and misunderstandings can spread down the generations. Gossip and guesses are transformed into ‘truth’.

Day also writes poetry and this shows in her neat turn of phrase. For example, cousin Gertrude puts on her eyeglasses which “magnify her grey eyes like two tadpoles in a jar”. Read more about her poetry here.

If you like this, try:-
Etta and Otto and Russell and James’ by Emma Hooper
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope
‘Yuki Chan in Bronte Country’ by Mick Jackson

‘Fred’s Funeral’ by Sandy Day [UK: S Day]

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Book review: Another World

Pat BarkerWorld War One, a speciality of Pat Barker, is present in every page of this tale of war veteran 101-year old Geordie, living through his final days with his grandson Nick. Woven through Geordie’s story are the threads of Nick’s life, his extended family involving wife, step son and half-siblings. In the modern day there are tensions between siblings, as there were between Geordie and his brother.

Pat Barker is an author who does not flinch from showing the human reactions that in real life we prefer to hide: sibling jealousy, sibling hate and underlying it all, selfishness. How these emotions affect this family, from 101-year old Geordie to his great-grandson Jasper, a toddler, is fascinating and often a difficult read.

A sideline from the main story is the life of the family who lived in the house where Nick has just moved with pregnant wife Fran, Fran’s son Gareth, and Fran and Nick’s son Jasper. Also visiting is Miranda, Nick’s daughter. I said the family ties were twisted. Tidying an overgrown rose on the wall of the house, Nick unveils a plaque labelled ‘Fanshawe’. This is the name of the family who lived in this house, Fanshawe made his money from armaments. When parents and children strip wallpaper off the walls, they unveil a portrait of a family. Is it the Fanshawes, or is it them? And so Barker introduces the ghostly strand with uncanny echoes between then and now.

This is a slim volume, read quickly, but not so quickly as to miss the delicacy of Barker’s writing. Here is Nick on his grandfather: ‘Nick feels he’s never known him, not because they’ve been distant from each other – far from it – but because they’ve been too close. It’s like seeing somebody an inch away, so that if you were asked to describe them you could probably manage to recall nothing more distinctive than the size of the pores in their nose.’

A slim volume with such acute observations about human nature, Another World makes you feel uncomfortable and ask questions of yourself. I read every novel Barker writes. Her ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, including the 1995 Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road, is a must.

Here are my reviews of Barker’s ‘Art’ trilogy:-
Life Class
Toby’s Room

If you like ‘Another World’, try:-
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

‘Another World’ by Pat Barker [UK: Penguin] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: Toby’s Room

Pat BarkerAs the second book of a trilogy by Pat Barker, this can be read also as a standalone novel. The Toby of the title is the brother art student Elinor Brooke, whose story is told in Life Class. This story starts further back in time with a secret shared by the siblings, something not hinted at in the first book. In fact this whole book is about secrets, things hidden for shame, war too horrible to talk about, fear and emotions to be ashamed of, and things simply not spoken. Society was very different then, pragmatism coloured everyday lives, people did what they had to and tried to forget the bad things.

Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, a parcel of his belongings is returned. Elinor believes the true story is being hidden and enlists fellow art student Paul Tarrant – who returned from Ypres injured and is now an official war artist – to help. She believes another war artist, Kit Neville, who served with Toby, must know the truth but refuses to say. Kit suffered a horrific face injury and is being treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup. Visiting Kit there they find not only Kit but Henry Tonks, their intimidating professor at the Slade School of Art.

The facial reconstructions at Sidcup are well documented, not least by the medical drawings of patients by Tonks and his team. Once again, Barker uses a true story and seamlessly inserts her fictional characters. And yet again, Barker combines a study of individuals at war while considering the role of art in conflict. As official war artists, Kit and Paul struggle with the limitations they are given, the portrayal of reality is forbidden. As I read every page of this book, the image which stayed in my mind was Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making a New World’ (see below).

Pat Barker

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Click here to read my review of Life Class.

For more novels about the Great War, try:-
‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne
‘The Mysterious Beach Hut’ by Jacky Atkins
‘The Ways of the World’ by Robert Goddard

‘Toby’s Room’ by Pat Barker, LifeClass trilogy #2 [UK: Penguin] Buy now

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Book review: Life Class

Pat BarkerPat Barker is one of my top five novelists. She writes sparingly with not a word wasted, but creates a world so real with detail and characterization. Life Class is the first of her #LifeClass trilogy of novels which tell the story of brother and sister Elinor and Toby, and Elinor’s fellow art students Paul and Kit, through the Great War. I first read this book when it was published in 2007 and devoured it. I have re-read it now to refresh my memory of the story and characters, before I read the newly published third volume of the trilogy, Noonday.

The story starts in 1914 in a life-drawing class at the Slade School of Art in London. The class is taken by Professor Henry Tonks, a real-life character, artist and surgeon. Barker weaves her fictional story around the true story of Tonks, the Slade, and the outbreak of the Great War. For student Paul Tarrant, the presence of Tonks is intimidating, as he struggles to find his identity as an artist. This is a novel about young people and their journey from youth to maturity via art and love, brutally influenced by the horrors of war. Interwoven with Paul’s story – he volunteers as an ambulance driver and goes to Ypres, working in a hospital – is that of Elinor Brooke, fellow art student. Elinor’s journey to adulthood is different, given that she is a woman at a time when middle-class women are not expected to have a career. She remains in London, continues to paint and mixes with the society group of Lady Ottoline Morrell, another true character, mixing with pacifists, conscientious objectors and the Bloomsbury Group.

Essentially, this is a triangular love story set into the structure of war. As the students struggle to define themselves as artists, their safe world collapses around them and the abnormal becomes normal. As Paul undertakes gruesome nursing tasks, he questions the purpose of war art and what it can achieve. As his life becomes surreal, so he is cast adrift from his former life without context to judge either his ability as an artist, or his humanity in the face of war. Are some things simply too horrific to paint?

My own copy of Life Class has the most beautiful cover [left]. Pat BarkerThis is the first in Pat Barker’s #LifeClass trilogy.

If you like ‘Life Class’, try these other Great War novels:-
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope

‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker, LifeClass#1 [UK: Penguin] Buy now

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Book review: The Ends of the Earth

Robert GoddardDon’t do what I did, and read the first two books in this series by Robert Goddard and then leave 12 months before reading the third. Ideally this trilogy should be read back to back, in full sun when sitting on a sunlounger. The story runs along at a cracking pace, with dense plotting, loads of characters, politics, spies and locations from Europe to Japan. The pace of this, the third book, is constant, hardly time to draw a breath.

Questions that I had forgotten about from the first book are revisited, challenged and solved. Japan is the scene for the climax of this tale of James Maxted, ‘Max’, and his hunt for the truth about his father’s death. But this is so much more than a single case of murder, on it hangs the future of post-Great War Europe and the twentieth-century relationship of Japan and America. At times things happen which seem a little convenient, a person turns out to have a skill or history of which we knew nothing before, but I forgave Goddard for this. He is a prime storyteller. It is clear he knows his settings – Paris, Marseilles, Switzerland, Japan – and this adds to the verisimilitude.

In this rollicking spy story, Goddard examines the nature of courage. Max finds himself drawing on the type of bravery he needed to survive in the Royal Flying Corps. “He was not surprised by how calm he felt, how undismayed by what lay before him. He had discovered his aptitude for taking risks early in the war. ‘You should be more careful, sir’, Sam had said to him more than once. And Max had always given the same reply. ‘Being careful is what gets a chap killed.’ Eventually, he had come to believe that. And it was a belief that had served him well. So far.”

Read my reviews of the first two books in ‘The Wide World’ trilogy here:-
The Ways of the World
The Corners of the Globe

If you like ‘The Ends of the Earth’, try:-
‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst
‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne
‘The Bone Church’ by Victoria Dougherty

‘The Ends of the Earth’ by Robert Goddard, The Wide World #3 [UK: Bantam Press] Buy now

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Book review: ‘A Long Long Way’

a long long way by sebastian barry 6-11-13This is the story of Willie Dunne, an innocent, who goes away to war not understanding fully what is involved but determined to do his bit. Written in 2005 and nominated for the Booker Prize, it is the tender tale of a young Irish man who volunteers for the British army and ends up in Belgium.

Set against the background of the Easter Rising, Willie does not fully understand the political implications of what is happening around him. He is born in Dublin, as a baby “he was like the thin upper arm of a beggar with a few meagre bones shot through him, provisional and bare.” Barry’s language throughout is a delight, something I didn’t expect when the book is about the worst of trench warfare. Barry does not spare punches, at times the action and conditions he describes brought me close to tears, but I read on, pulled forwards by Willie’s life force.

He travels to new places, “ravished by the simple joy of seeing new places of the earth.” This joy unravels when arrives at the trenches. “The biggest thing there was the roaring of Death and the smallest thing was a man. Bombs not so far off distressed the earth of Belgium, disgorged great heaps of it, and did everything except kill him immediately, as he half-expected them to do.” And all the time he longs from Gretta, his girl at home. “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it.”

This is the second book I’ve read on my ‘World War One books to read before 2018’ list [the first was John Boyne’s ‘Stay Where You Are & Then Leave’. Read my review at:-

If the rest are as good as these two, a treat lays in store. I will be reading more by Sebastian Barry.
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry