2016 Historical Fiction

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, London, teacher, love, triumphs

I loved Chris Cleave’s debut novel, The Other Hand, but his subsequent books haven’t been in the same league. With Everyone Brave Is Forgiven he has returned to form. The fact this is based on the experiences of his relatives has ignited a special spark in his writing – the passion and emotion shines through. I even discovered a few more facts about WWII!

The book begins in London at the start of WWII, with Mary North volunteering to become a spy. To her disappointment she is assigned to teach in a primary school, taking over the job from a man who is sent away on war business. Mary forms a bond with the children, particularly Zachary, the son of a black minstrel. But the main focus of the novel is love and the way war impacts on the relationships that are formed during this difficult time.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is very well researched and I loved learning about a slightly different aspect of WWII. There were a few disturbing scenes, but these were balanced by the humour present in the rest of the novel. It was lovely to see how the British public coped with the terrible situation by making light of their plight – the dialogue was fantastic and most of the jokes were new to me. As per this History articles you will get the brief idea about immigration.

The imagery was also particularly vivid:

They were all turning to stone from hunger. They took  cover behind stone walls. They painted their trucks and their helmets and their guns to resemble stone blocks, as if by sympathetic magic some hardness might accrue. They saw rubble walls when they closed their eyes at night. Sometimes, when one was particularly hungry, the omnipresent yellow limestone had the exact hue of cheddar, and when the enemy’s paratroopers finally came it would afford about as much protection.

This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light. I’m sure it will be on a few prize shortlists later this year.


Shtum by Jem Lester

  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: autism, boy, school, fight, funding

Shtum is an emotional book about one couple’s fight to get their autistic son into an appropriate school.

One of my sons has Asperger’s so I have become friends with many other people whose children have autism. I’ve been to numerous support groups where I’ve heard stories about the battle parents face to get the support their children need. These groups are incredibly distressing to attend and the suffering these parents and children have to endure is shocking. Shtum gives a realistic portrait of the difficulties faced by these families. It is well researched and follows a path similar to many of the people I’ve met.

Unfortunately I think I’m too close to this subject to enjoy reading about it. Everyone on Twitter seems to love it – raving about the way the humour is mixed with the sadness. I’m afraid I am too aware of the reality behind the situation to find any of it funny and I found the whole reading experience distressing.

‘We’re being punished because we love and care for him and he’s not as good at autism as he could be.’ ‘He’ll never play autism for England.’
‘It’s like they’re persecuting us for not being completely destroyed by the situation. Things aren’t bad enough, yet. He doesn’t need to wear a crash helmet or headphones and we aren’t crack addicts.’ ‘Yet.’

The author clearly has experience of living with an autistic child, but sadly I found the whole story predictable. There was just something too ordinary about it. Unlike the magnificent, sadly underrated, The Mouseproof Kitchen by Saira Shah, it offered me no new insight – or uplifting side story to counterbalance the misery.

I’m really pleased that so many people are reading this book and enjoying it. Anything that improves society’s knowledge of autism is a good thing. It’s just sad that I’ve heard similar stories in real life far too many times before.


The Thoughts of Other Bloggers

…an extraordinary, heart-rending story… The Book Magnet

It manages to be incredibly moving without ever feeling sentimental, and despite the often tough subject matter it’s frequently very funny. Breakfast at Libraries

…be prepared: it will break your heart into a million pieces and it will take one small piece away, so your heart will never be the same. Book Nerd Mermaid

2016 Historical Fiction

The Villa Rouge by Maggie Ross

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, family, secret, consequences, life

I hadn’t heard of Maggie Ross until this book popped through my letterbox, but the PR blurb highlighted the fact that she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize back in 1969 and so I was intrigued.

The Villa Rouge is a slow moving, but richly detailed, story set during WWII. The plot revolves around Morgan Pericall, a young woman whose husband volunteers to join the army at the first opportunity. Betrayed by his abandonment, she leaves London and moves back into her childhood home. The events of WWII slowly develop around her and we see the effect that war has on a range of different people.

Charlie found it exciting listening to Simon’s tales: twelve miles inland from the coast had been designated a danger area; London was in a state of emergency, although it was reported that people were dying mostly from accidents caused by pitch-dark roads; there were already wardens on street patrols in the West End. Arpent said A.R.P posts were being set up in London’s private houses. So why not at the Villa Rouge? Rhoda and Charlie thought it thrilling. All Morgan could think about was her home in Tufnell Park.

I thought that I knew most things about WWII, but this book has a level of detail which surpasses most others on the subject. I’m not sure how old Maggie Ross is, but I read this feeling as though she’d lived through these experiences herself. The authenticity and meandering nature of the plot gave the impression that this book was more autobiographical than fictional.

Much of this book was impressive, but my main gripe was that the characters weren’t very likeable (something I’m scared of writing, given the fact I think this is autobiographical!) I love deeply flawed characters, but these didn’t seem to have many redeeming features. I failed to form a connection to them and so didn’t care what happened.

I was also a bit annoyed to discover (on the very last page!) that this book carries on into a sequel. I try not to start series until the final one is published, as I know I will never remember enough detail if I have to wait until the next one is released. I think the fact this is only the first half of a book should be revealed on the cover.

These small problems shouldn’t put you off reading it, as there is a lot to enjoy in here. The Villa Rouge gives a rare insight into domestic life in England during WWII. Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading about family life.





His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: boy, dog, family, Ontario, journey

Elizabeth Hay is an author I’ve heard mentioned many times. She won the Giller Prize in 2007 for Late Nights on Air and her name always crops up if you talk about Canadian literature for any length of time. I’ve been meaning to try her work for a while, so when a review copy of this book dropped through my letter box I decided it was the perfect opportunity to sample her writing.

His Whole Life is a beautifully written portrait of the relationship between ten-year-old Jim and his family. The book perfectly captures the subtle nuances of a child this age, showing how their innocence is slowly eroded.

The novel begins with the family driving from New York to Ontario for their summer holiday. Jim’s mother was born in Canada and his father in America. This divide becomes the central theme for the book – especially the longing for a place and time you can no longer be in:

“Do you remember,” they would say to each other, “that frosty Thanksgiving Monday when the leaves fell on the water like rain?” And in their minds they would be back in this moment when everything was still – there was no wind – yet everything was changing.

Each scene was created with immense skill and I was quickly drawn into this family’s life. Unfortunately there was little forward momentum and the detail became overwhelming. It captured ordinary life so well that I felt I’d heard it all before and I became bored by the tediousness of it all.

Much of the book was influenced by the closely fought 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec. I suspect it will have a much greater impact on those who are familiar with Canadian politics, but it generates discussions on separation and belonging that have relevance for the UK’s current referendum on EU membership.

His Whole Life is a beautifully written character study, with many fantastic scenes. It wasn’t quite to my taste, but anyone who enjoys slow moving character studies will gain a lot from reading it.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

….a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. A Life in Books

….a gorgeous and evocative work. Have Mat, Will Travel

….she really captures the often strange dynamic of families. Janice S