Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain #20Booksofsummer

Book 15

Non-Fiction 3*s

An alternately moving and exasperating memoir written by a woman who moved from childhood to adulthood during the lead up to World War I, this book published in 1933 uses her diaries and letters from that time to give us a picture of what the realities of war meant for a young woman of her generation.

The book opens with Vera’s desperation to go to Oxford despite her family’s, particularly her father’s objection to this course at odds with the opportunity to study being freely offered to her brother, Edward. It is exceptionally hard to picture a life of the fairly privileged, intelligent and inquisitive Edwardian young lady whose life was still mapped out by the strictures of the Victorian Era. Funny also to read her comparison to the young people of the day when she was writing this memoir who she viewed with envy for the freedom offered to them. Of course from my perspective the generation she envied for the easiness of their lives; the freedom to court without chaperones, to receive degrees even as women and to be employed despite being married, appears to be wildly exaggerated compared to the freedoms we have nowadays. This is just one example of why I’m glad I finally made time to read this book as it demonstrates how feminism wasn’t one wild gallop to get the vote, the struggle was long and incremental and yet women like Vera appreciated the progress made towards a better future.

The book covers Vera’s coming down from Oxford to join the VADs nursing in England, Malta and France throughout the war whilst she simultaneously worried about her brother and her friends fighting in the conflict which as the war progressed she began to hate with a vengeance for its waste of life at the behest of political masters. She saw through the treaties for the young to become heroes to give up their futures for egos. She also records one of the rarely recorded views of the older generation, those who had to live without servants for the first time in their lives, the men and women who had given their children to the fight both on the battlefields and to other war-work thereby forgoing the previous right to call on their unmarried daughters when required.

Following the end of the War Vera retakes her position at Oxford this time to study History rather than English becoming ever more interested in international politics which I’m regretful to report I found in the main a struggle to read as they referenced matters that my knowledge simply wasn’t great enough for me to fully appreciate. With my interest far more keen on the politics relating to women’s lives, this section wasn’t a complete right-off as the considerations proposed for women during the War were under attack following the conclusion of it – to have these put into wider context was enlightening.

My exasperation with the book was in part with her condescending tone which covered whole swaths of the population; the locals from her teens, those women who wanted to seize life rather than study or grieve, those who hadn’t worked through the war because they were too young, men, in general who weren’t her brother or her friend etc. etc. and whilst some of the earlier sections can be considered a faithful recording of her younger self, this continual holding herself up as a paragon of one whose life has been more meaningful than those that didn’t share her experiences, her political ambitions or her daily preoccupation with being taken seriously by everyone got a little wearing.

This is a huge book at over 600 wordy pages with parts, such as the experiences of nursing during the war that I found exceptionally interesting and poignant and those latter pages which detail her work with the League of Nations that frankly I found less so. That said, with a book full of detailed accounts of life before, during and after the war I felt that I truly put flesh on the bones of what I understood life to be like in the UK during this time and even more when right at the end of the book Vera and her friend Winifred take a tour of Europe to have a taste of what those nations lives looked like a decade after the war started compelling reading.

A worthwhile book to read and one that although this short review merely highlights a small proportion of its content, has broadened my knowledge of the time period, albeit for one section of society in particular. At times desperately sad and a reminder of quite what an entire generation went through in the hopes of forging a better future at others I was cheering Vera on with her ambition to make the world a better place. Sadly my overall feeling when I reached the end was discomfort as I couldn’t help but consider Vera’s hopes for peace were to be dashed with the Second World War already looming on the horizon at the time of publication.

First Published UK: August 1933
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages 640
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Lost Empress – Steve Robinson

Mystery (Genealogical) 5*'s
Mystery (Genealogical)

On 29 May 1914 having left Quebec for Liverpool, the Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner sank following a collision with SS Storstad, a Norwegian collier. Of the 1,477 people on board that night 1,012 people died, the largest Canadian maritime loss of life in peacetime, one hundred years later Jefferson Tayte is trying to track down the true fate of Alice Stillwell a second class passenger on the liner.

Empress of Ireland

The Lost Empress is the fourth in the Jefferson Tayte series where the affable genealogist who is more prone to taking on more dangerous assignments than is surely normal for a profession, has an assignment that takes him across the Atlantic to England in search of the truth about the Admiral’s daughter. Armed with a locket in possession of a descendent of an Alice Dixon living in the US who has a strong suspicion that Alice didn’t die on 29 May 1914 as the records indicate but if not why does no-one know?

I have enjoyed all the stories featuring JT, he is a likeable man who has turned to making genealogy a business despite not knowing his own birth family, this story arc continues in this episode but otherwise each book can be read as a stand-alone with each book concerning a different period of history and its own dangerous adventure it finding the truth. This book is no different, within hours of landing in England, JT is turned away by the first name on his list, the descendent of Alice Stillwell, leaving only slightly perturbed, he is used to this kind of behaviour, he is nearly run off the road in a seemingly calculated move. When he gets to the next name on his list he finds that the man has been recently murdered but all is not lost the friendly policeman agrees to let JT help with the investigation in case it is related to the one hundred year old mystery.

JT’s investigation leads him into many areas including spies during WWI and those tasked to catch them, the Secret Service Bureau. Spying was dangerous, if caught it was a matter of high treason and the sentence was to be shot by firing squad at the Tower of London. Steve Robinson adds colour to JT’s tale by alternating chapters from Alice Stillwell with his present day investigation, a device that has worked well in all these books and lifts the subjects from pure research into a character that the reader can relate to.

Another fantastic episode and once again an informative and well-researched read especially as it details activities that were never mentioned as part of the history of WWI I learnt at school!

I’d like to thank the publishers Amazon Publishing for my copy of this book which I received in return for this honest review. The Lost Empress will be published on 21 October 2014

Previous books by Steve Robinson featuring Jefferson Tayte:

In The Blood
Two hundred years ago a loyalist family fled to England to escape the American War of Independence and seemingly vanished into thin air. American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is hired to find out what happened, but it soon becomes apparent that a calculated killer is out to stop him.
In the Blood combines a centuries-old mystery with a present-day thriller that brings two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic together to uncover a series of carefully hidden crimes. Tayte’s research centres around the tragic life of a young Cornish girl, a writing box, and the discovery of a dark secret that he believes will lead him to the family he is looking for. Trouble is, someone else is looking for the same answers and will stop at nothing to find them.

To The Grave
A curiously dated child’s suitcase arrives, unannounced and unexplained, in a modern-day Washington suburb. A week later, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is sitting in an English hotel room, staring at the wrong end of a loaded gun.
In his latest journey into the past, Tayte lands in wartime Leicestershire, England. The genealogist had hoped simply to reunite his client with the birth mother she had never met, having no idea she had been adopted. Instead, he uncovers the tale of a young girl and an American serviceman from the US 82nd Airborne, and a stolen wartime love affair that went tragically wrong.

The Last Queen of England
While on a visit to London, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte’s old friend and colleague dies in his arms. Before long, Tayte and a truth-seeking historian, Professor Jean Summer, find themselves following a corpse-ridden trail that takes them to the Royal Society of London, circa 1708.
What to make of the story of five men of science, colleagues of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, who were mysteriously hanged for high treason?
As they edge closer to the truth, Tayte and the professor find that death is once again in season. A new killer, bent on restoring what he sees as the true, royal bloodline, is on the loose…as is a Machiavellian heir-hunter who senses that the latest round of murder, kidnapping, and scandal represents an unmissable business opportunity.

I wrote a post last year about the rise of a genre in response to those of us who are interested in genealogy which you can read here which includes brief reviews for the previous JT books.

Posted in Books I have read

Spilt Milk – Amanda Hodgkinson

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction

22 Britannia Road, the debut novel by this author, has been languishing on my wishlist for years, so I was delighted to win a Goodreads giveaway for Spilt Milk, Amanda Hodgkinson’s next novel.

Spilt Milk starts in 1913 with three sisters living in an isolated cottage next to the Little River in Suffolk, England. Rose the eldest has brought up her younger two sisters, Nellie and Vivian in impoverished conditions and her dearest wish is that the three of them lived together safe from the frightening stories she reads in the local gazette. Working on the nearby farm Rose and Nellie bring in the pennies while Vivian looks after the home and the days are tracked by the changing season. All goes well until one day the river floods, and a stranger arrives changing everything.

This is a really good example of a historical saga with plenty of secrets and an underlying theme of female relationships, in all their guises, covering a lengthy time span. The story continues to 1963 but fortunately the author has taken the judicious decision to move the story forward with the characters reflecting on the past as well as narrating the present. This device not only keeps the book length long enough to be fulfilling while avoiding the feeling that it has been unnecessarily padded, but also keeps the reading experience fresh with the change of tense and pace.

Although most of the characters are female the male characters are equally well presented while keeping the feeling of the time period authentic. I loved the way the book charted the changing times from those where women who ‘got into trouble’ were harshly judged by their peers to a softening of attitudes in the 1960’s. At the heart of this book is the relationship between sisters which includes the rivalry and the support they provide.

The author has managed to write a riveting story which is deeper than the premise might suggest, where secrets are revealed and hidden in equal measure, with some remaining a mystery to the protagonists to the very end. I now want to read 22 Britannia Road after this enjoyable read.

Posted in Books I have read

The Midnight Rose – Lucinda Riley

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction

I’m a big fan of fiction written against a well-researched historical background and this 688 page novel delivers the tale of young Indian Anahita Chevran which weaves between her homeland and England where she is trapped at the beginning of World War I.  During her time in England she spent time at Astbury Hall as the companion to Princess Indira.  Lady Maud Astbury makes it quite clear that poor Anahita is an unwelcome addition to the household but with few options as an orphan, it is clear that she has to endure her time spent in this remote stately home.

In the present day Rebecca Bradley is an actress filming a period drama set in the 1920’s at Astbury Hall, in Dartmoor.  Rebecca is eager to escape the press interest about her private life and so the trip to England is the perfect solution.  There is a surprise in store when she becomes friendly with the resident Lord Astbury who is amazed at her likeness to his Grandmother Violet.

I can only admire Lucinda Riley’s story-telling as a large part of this story not only demanded that the historical details felt authentic, but also that the tale of Anahita’s life in India felt equally genuine and on both counts she succeeded.  Although romantic attachments are key to the lives of a number of the characters there is also a dark mystery to be uncovered.

For me the power of a dual time-line novel depends on the past and the present being equally believable and although for me understanding what the truth was of Anahita’s life was what kept me reading the tie-in to the present day story was integral to the whole tale, one could simply not have existed without the other.

The pacing of this story is masterfully done, after all this is a long book yet one that I immersed myself in  as letters, diaries and long-held family secrets were slowly uncovered.  The central character in this book is Anahita and her character was well fleshed out although what stopped me awarding this book five stars is although there were other engaging characters including Princess Indira and Mrs Trevathan I did find a few of them quite wishy-washy but this wasn’t enough to spoil what is an epic story which beautifully contrasts different cultures, different times all wrapped up with a tale set perfectly within its time period.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers Atria Books in return for my honest review.

This is the fourth novel  Lucinda Riley has published her previous books are:

The Hothouse Flower which I have just realised is on my bookshelf, unread.  This was one of the Richard and Judy picks for 2011.

The Hothouse Flower


A heart-rending page turner which sweeps from war-torn Europe to Thailand and back again . . .
As a child Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park estate, where her grandfather tended the exotic flowers.
So when a family tragedy strikes, Julia returns to the tranquility of Wharton Park and its hothouse. Recently inherited by charismatic Kit Crawford, the estate is undergoing renovation. This leads to the discovery of an old diary, prompting the pair to seek out Julia’s grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park.
Julia is taken back to the 1940s where the fortunes of young couple Olivia and Harry Crawford will have terrible consequences on generations to come. For as war breaks out Olivia and Harry are cruelly separated . . .Goodreads

The Girl on the Cliff which was an enjoyable read also set around the time of World War I
The Girl on the Cliff


Why has a secret from 1914 caused a century of heartache?
Troubled by recent loss, Grania Ryan has returned to Ireland and the arms of her loving family. And it is here, on a cliff edge, that she first meets a young girl, Aurora, who will profoundly change her life.
Mysteriously drawn to Aurora, Grania discovers that the histories of their families are strangely and deeply entwined . . .
From a bittersweet romance in wartime London to a troubled relationship in contemporary New York, from devotion to a foundling child to forgotten memories of a lost brother, the Ryans and the Lisles, past and present, have been entangled for a century. Ultimately, it will be Aurora whose intuition and remarkable spirit help break the spell and unlock the chains of the past.
Haunting, uplifting and deeply moving, Aurora’s story tells of the triumph of hope over loss.Goodreads

and my favourite, The Light Behind The Window whose historical setting was World War II

The Light Behind The Window


The present
Emilie de la Martiniéres has always fought against her aristocratic background, but after the death of her glamorous, distant mother, she finds herself alone in the world and sole inheritor of her grand childhood home in the south of France. An old notebook of poems leads her in search of the mysterious and beautiful Sophia, whose tragic love affair changed the course of her family history. As Emilie unravels the story, she too embarks on her own journey of discovery, realising that the château may provide clues to her own difficult past and finally unlock the future.
The past
London 1943. A young office clerk, Constance Carruthers, is drafted into the SOE, arriving in occupied Paris during the climax of the conflict. Separated from her contact in her very first hours in France, she stumbles into the heart of a wealthy family who are caught up in a deadly game of secrets and lies. Forced to surrender her identity and all ties to her homeland and her beloved husband, Constance finds herself drawn into a complex web of deception, the repercussions of which will affect generations to come.
From the author of the international bestseller, Hothouse Flower, Lucinda Riley’s new novel is a breathtaking and intense story of love, war and, above all, forgiveness. Goodreads

The Midnight Rose

Posted in Books I have read

The Fall and Rise of Lucy Charlton – Elizabeth Gill

Historical Fiction 3*'s
Historical Fiction

Set in the period immediately following the First World War this is the story of Lucy Charlton, the daughter of a solicitor who is studying at Durham University. The fall of poor Lucy is a shocking one and the consequences are not hers alone.

Joe went off to fight in the war against the wishes of his father who had bought him up in London on his own since the death of his mother. When Joe returns he finds he has lost not only his father but also his fortune and his girlfriend. His fortune he accepts as lost forever, he has letters from his father which he ekes out through the course of the story reading one on my reckoning every three months or so, but he will not accept the loss of Angela. He is determined to find out what has happened to her.

This tale is told from the viewpoints of Lucy and Joe over a period of years as their lives are intertwined by some of the minor characters in the book, some of whom are delightful like the Misses Slater who Lucy helps when she finds them in straightened circumstances.

The parts I was less enamoured with is the fact that Joe ‘sees things!’ Not only that but you would not believe the number of dreams that are mentioned in this book! This either results with the character on awakening suddenly knows something that was either already obvious, or conversely, leads to the next big discovery which moves the plot along. Now my irritation with this device may well be because there is nothing that is more likely to induce me to yawn in real life than if someone recounts a dream, and so while I can overlook the odd dream, the sheer number in this book irritated me so much that I lost all faith in the story being told.

As a romance I am sure this book works well, as a historical romance the actual historical details were quite light. No-one except Joe seems to have fought in the war nor does it appear to have had a huge impact on their lives which was disappointing for me as this was why I chose to read this particular novel.

I received a free copy of this book from Quercus in return for my honest review.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Wake – Anna Hope

Historical Fiction  5*'s
Historical Fiction

For those who fought in World War I there were two likely outcomes: they would die or they would be damaged either mentally or physically and often both. For the women who loved them life was less certain.

Anna Hope has written a beautiful book following the five days prior to the internment of The Unknown Warrior at the Cenotaph. Each chapter is a day and each of those days follows the journey of the coffin from France to Britain for the ceremony.

The depth of descriptions of each the lives of the three women featured is outstanding, Ada, 45, whose son never returned from the war. Evelyn almost 30 and lives with a friend, another spinster and goes to work each day in the Pension Exchange interviewing the wounded and Hettie who lives with her mother and shell-shocked brother Fred who is employed as a dancer at The Hammersmith Palais de Danse. As the days go on the more we learn about these poor lost women and the men who surround them.

The book could be considered a little confusing to begin with as the women are introduced with no real link between them, all are unhappy and yearning for something better. This is a book that leaves you in no doubt that the two short years since the war ended has not healed the wounds inflicted upon the nation. All three women reveal more of their backstory as the book goes on. I am a fan of this kind of writing where the details are revealed layer by layer and our knowledge of the character grows throughout the book. I always feel that this is more like real life where we know the basics when we first meet someone, make a judgement based on the things they do and say and then if we get to know them better revise our judgements based upon knowledge of the reasons behind them and Anna Hope has mastered this to perfection. The little things that are revealed are among the most poignant in this book, who could not get a lump in their throat when an understated sentence is thrown in about an injured soldier paying sixpence to have a dance with a dancer employed by the Palais, wooden leg being a hindrance to bringing his own partner to the dance.

The historical details are also well-researched; The Hammersmith Palais de Danse was opened in 1919 and one irate clergyman was quoted as stating ‘the morals of a pigsty would be respectable in comparison’ (We Danced All Night by Martin Pugh) as the dances included American Jazz.

The Hammersmith Palais de Danse

The Hammersmith Palais de Danse 1920

For me this was a beautiful, if incredibly moving read, bravely, in this the hundredth anniversary of the start of the war, containing far more anti-war sentiment than many set in this time period.

The Unknown Warrior
The Mayor of Ypres walking alongside the Unknown Warrior 11 November 1920

I received this book from the publishers Random House UK, ahead of the publication date of 16 January 2014, in return for this honest review, something I am extremely grateful for as this book is one of those that will stay with me for a long time.



Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Moon Field – Judith Allnatt

Historical Fiction 5*'s
Historical Fiction

George is just eighteen years old, lives with his parents and his younger siblings Ted and Lilly when he first met Violet during his deliveries as a postman. Violet was out for a walk taking photos as an escape from her duties, mainly being a companion to her sick mother The difference in their lives couldn’t be greater but George was bowled over by her beauty decides to give her one of the watercolours he has painted. Unknown to George as he hurried along to meet Violet the post he has to deliver to her that day her sparks a chain reaction that will change both their lives forever.

George goes off to war with a small group of friends and is soon dispatched to the front. Under the watchful eye of Edmund the young lads suffer the wet and the cold, the terror of the bombs and the seemingly futile push to stop the Germans advance into France.

Judith Allnatt does not sugar coat any of the horror of the war. This book eloquently shows what a generation of young men endured. There are descriptions of dead bodies left sinking in the mud and those who suffered with their injuries with no one to rescue them from the battlefield. I really feel that this book made me understand the true nature of this war, far from the statistics of non-fiction, this story about how George and his friends suffered and found their own way of coping and in doing so tells the stories of the men in an accessible, yet hard-hitting way. Despite the realities that were suffered, this is a story and a neatly plotted one at that, there are few enough characters that the author added layers to their personality over the course of the book which meant that as a reader I truly cared about so many of the fictional lives shared.

This is a fantastic book to read in the anniversary year of World War I.

This book will be published on 16 January 2013 by The Borough Press. I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine in return for this honest review.

The Moon Field

Posted in Uncategorized

War on Wednesday (21 August)

A Commonplace Killing

Having just read Sian Busby’s crime novel, A Commonplace thrilling, set just after World War II made me think about my top 5 novels either set in war-time or about living with the legacy of war.

One set in a small English town during World War I is Worthless Men written by the talented Andrew Cowen
Worthless Men

Another favourite of mine from World War I is the weepy from Jojo Moyes, The Girl You Left Behind

Historical Fiction 5*'s
Historical Fiction

From War II my favourite has to be The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
The Secret Keeper

My final offering is a poem from the poet Wilfred Owen


Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen

What are your favourite war stories or poems?
Please feel free to link to your blog using the comment box below

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Home Fires – Elizabeth Day

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction

Home Fires is the story of two women, Elsa who was born during the First World War and Caroline who is her daughter-in-law. Both women had their lives defined by war. Elsa’s father returned to the daughter he didn’t know a damaged and brutal man. Caroline’s son Max decided to join the army.

The story is gentle but powerful, full of richness with the intensity of feelings, and what can happen when the layers of finesse are stripped back. All the relationships in this book are authentic; Elsa’s with her daughter-in-law, Elsa with her Grandson, Caroline’s suffocating love of her only child Max and her shifting love for her husband Andrew are familiar yet unique. Told in narrative by Caroline in the present day and Elsa in flashbacks to the 1920’s this is a sumptuous book full of detail as well as touching without being mawkish.

I read Scissors, Paper, Stone and thoroughly enjoyed it and Elizabeth Day has proved herself to be an author to watch for those of us who enjoy depth and a deft hand with difficult subjects

Posted in Books I have read

The Memory of Lost Senses – Judith Kinghorn

Historical Fiction 3*'s
Historical Fiction
Cora, Countess de Chevalier de Saint Léger, now an old lady has returned to England in the long hot summer of 1911. Cora has spent the previous sixty years in Paris and Rome visiting `home’ only occasionally. Having been urged when she left England’s shores by her Aunt Frances to look forwards and never back there is clearly a secret to be discovered the question is that will Cora ever reveal what it is?

I enjoyed the writing in this book, loved the descriptions of the small rural village of Bramley during 1911 when a young neighbour Cecily Chadwick is entranced by Cora’s only relative, her grandson, Jack. Unfortunately by the end of the 372 pages of being drip-fed tit bits of information about Cora’s husbands, lovers, children and friends and enemies I no longer cared about the secret as I didn’t care about Cora. I thought the most interesting and realistically drawn character was Sylvia, Cora’s oldest friend, who was in Bramley to write her memoirs.

This is a story about loss, Cora had one great passion in her life that was never fulfilled and her memory was clouded by the re-writing of her history which meant that the stories she had told over the years had to be unpicked to reveal the beginning. The nature of this tale means that there is a lot of flitting backwards and forwards over the years, Judith Kinghorn handled this well which meant that it was easy to follow the storyline. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book more if I had some sympathy for Cora but she never really came to life for me.

I received this book through the Amazon Vine Programme.