2014 Historical Fiction

Wake by Anna Hope


Five words from the blurb: unknown, soldier, buried, women, change

Wake is set over the five-day period in 1920 in which the body an ‘unknown soldier’ was removed from a French WWI battlefield, transported to England, and then buried in Westminster Abbey. The book shows how important this remembrance service was to the British people, allowing them some closure for the suffering they’d endured as a result of WWI.

The story concentrates on three women, showing how the war impacted on their lives and how they adjusted as things began to return to normal. It was very well researched, with lots of little facts about both social and military history.

I loved the sections containing information about the unknown soldier. The descriptions of the battlefield after the war had ended were incredibly atmospheric and I enjoyed learning the details of the clean-up process – something I’d not come across before. Unfortunately I found the sections on the women less interesting – their characters lacked depth and I often struggled to tell them apart. Too much information was crammed into the book at the expense of emotional engagement and detailed character development.

I also felt that the book sometimes forgot its time period. There were several occasions when I questioned the actions of the characters as they appeared more modern than a 1920s person would be – both in terms of what they did and the dialogue they used.

I read Wake because it was selected by my book group. Everyone else enjoyed it more than I did and their passion was infectious. I found that as the book was discussed I appreciated it more. I’d thought that there were too many characters, but I began to realise that they all served a purpose. I prefer books that concentrate on a smaller cast, but I can see why others enjoyed the brief insight into the lives of a wider range of people.

“I see so many women here,” she says, “and they are holding, all of them. Holding on to their sons or their lovers or their husbands, or their fathers, just as surely as they are holding on to the table here,” she gestures with her hands. “They’re all different but all the same. All of them are afraid to let them go. And if we feel guilt, we find it even harder to release the dead. We keep them close to us; we guard them jealously. They were ours. We want them to remain ours.” There’s a silence. “But they are not ours,” she says. “And in a sense, they never were. They belong to themselves, only. Just as we belong to ourselves. And this is terrible in some ways, and in others…it might set us free.”

Overall this was a fantastic book club choice. There was a lot to discuss and we all felt that we’d gained something from having read it. Recommended for the snippets of historical knowledge and the pleasure of an avid discussion.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It is beautifully and inventively written, adding something unique and genuinely enlightening to the canon of contemporary historical fiction. Book Snob

None of the protagonists were memorable enough to be thought of little more than fillers and I cringed at the tawdry motives behind unnecessary scenes. Live and Dream a Little Dream

Anna Hope’s writing was simple and straightforward, but at the same time profound. Laura’s Little Book Blog

1990s Classics

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks


Five words from the blurb: WWI, affair, mud, doomed, love

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but I kept postponing the event because I worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it. For some reason I thought it would be a slow romance and so I was surprised to discover that most of this book is set in the trenches of WWI and it contains some of the most vivid battle scenes I’ve ever come across.

The book begins with Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, travelling to France on business. He falls in love with the wife of his host and their secret love affair forces them to make difficult choices about what really matters in their lives. Fast-forward a few years and Stephen finds himself deep in the trenches of WWI. He must put his thoughts of love aside and concentrate on the lives of the soldiers around him.

I found the experience of reading this book very strange as although I had no emotional connection to the characters I still wanted to know what happened to them. In each scene I didn’t care whether or not an individual lived or died, but the tension was mounted perfectly and it frequently had my heart racing.

The descriptions of what life was like for those fighting in the trenches were outstanding and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

The men loved jokes, though they had heard each one before. Jack’s manner was persuasive; few of them had seen the old stories so well delivered. Jack himself laughed a little, but he was able to see the effect his performance had on his audience. The noise of their laughter roared like the sea in his ears. He wanted it louder and louder; he wanted them to drown out the war with their laughter. If they could shout loud enough, they might bring the world back to its senses; they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead.

Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the sections set in the 1970s. Every time the book entered this more modern era I became bored and longed for it to return to the gritty realism of the war. In the end I could see why these bits were added, but I think the book would have been better without them.

The last WWI scene was particularly poignant and is one of the most important pieces of war writing I’ve ever read.

This is a modern classic and I can see why it keeps cropping up on those lists of books everyone should read. It has its faults, but these are far outweighed by the positives.

Highly recommended.



This book was given to me by the BBC shop in exchange for an honest review.

2010 Historical Fiction Non Fiction Recommended books

Young Hitler – Claus Hant

I have recently developed an interest in the psychology behind people who commit acts of evil and so I jumped at the chance to read this book.

Young Hitler is a non-fiction novel showing Hitler’s life as a teenager and young man through the eyes of his best friend.  This was a fantastic device as it allowed us to see his actions and hear his words, but never know exactly what was going through his mind. This meant that many of his actions were open to interpretation, allowing to reader to come to their own conclusions about Hilter’s motivations.

‘No, sir! I live in a world of ideas!’ retorted Dolferl.

‘A mask is an idea,’ countered Herr Maurer. ‘Think of it as an idea that allows you to say and do anything you want amongst strangers who are also posing as ideas. Therefore, everyone and everything is on an equal footing. I find masks allow for a greater exchange of ideas and … everything.’

‘I don’t need any mask to hide behind,’ declared Dorlferl.

‘Then find a mask instead that allows you to become more of who you are,’ replied Herr Maurer.

‘I have that already,’ said Dolferl, pointing to his face. ‘I say whatever I want to whomever I want. And I allow that person the privilege of looking me directly in the eye. And sometimes that, my gracious host, is the most effective mask of all.’

The book was very easy to read and became increasingly gripping as it progressed. I knew very little about Hitler’s early life and so found the details fascinating. It also taught me a bit more about the history of Germany leading up to WWII.

My only problem with this book was that it was a non-fiction novel and there were times, especially in the beginning, when it was more non-fiction than novel. The book was meticulously researched, even including 150 pages of appendices to validate the facts, but there were times when I felt that every tiny detail known about Hitler had to be included. These random details sometimes got in the way of the story and I felt that a few more of these facts should have been left in the appendices.

Overall this was a fascinating book. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Hitler or the causes of WWII, but I think that this insight into Hitler’s life will be of interest to a far wider audience.

Highly recommended.

2010 Booker Prize

C – Tom McCarthy

Short listed for 2010 Booker Prize

C begins in 1898 with the birth of Serge Carrefax on an estate in Southern England. Serge’s father runs a school for deaf children, but also has a passion for radio communication. This leads Serge to become a wireless radio operator, initially working on spotter planes in WWI and after the war on an archaeological dig in Egypt.

The book initially felt like a piece of historical fiction, but it quickly became much more than that. The text contained layers of philosophy and symbolism that added to the richness of the story, but also left me feeling as though I was constantly missing out on relevant snippets of information.

The book was packed with fascinating details about everything from radio communication to silk production:

The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he’s had to build a silence box around his desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping household – or, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the household’s fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.

I loved most of these details, but there were times when I felt that too many were included and the book lost its emotional connection to me.

The plot was quite simple and easy to read on a sentence-by-sentence level, but there were points when I completely lost interest – it was a real chore to read some of the chapters. Luckily the book always seemed to pick up again and I was especially impressed by the WWI section – the descriptions of life in a spotter plane were particularly vivid.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but I think fans of literary fiction who like re-reading/studying books will love discovering all those extra layers of symbolism. For this reason I think it has a very high chance of winning the Booker prize, but then yesterday I was saying David Mitchell would win – so what do I know?!!

Literary blogs love this book:

C is the best novel I’ve read in a long time… Biblioklept

It teems with relevance and reference… Asylum

….but I could not help feeling that academics would be paying a lot more attention to this novel than most readers do. Kevin From Canada

…the multiple ideas and the play go on throughout the book and tie together with satisfying insights. The Mookse and the Gripes

2010 Recommended books

The Blasphemer – Nigel Farndale

I’d describe The Blasphemer as a solidly good read. It begins by following a couple, Daniel and Nancy, as they travel to the Galapagos Islands. Their plane crashes into the sea and Daniel’s instincts take over – he rescues himself without stopping to think about saving Nancy. Nancy survives the crash too but becomes resentful of Daniel. She questions how much he loves her, thinking that if he had any real feelings for her then he would have put her life above his own.

In a parallel narrative we find out about the equally difficult decisions Daniel’s great grandfather made during the First World War. The scenes of the battlefield were particularly vivid and packed with emotion.

Blood is roaring in his ears. He needs to urinate. A feeling of inertia is creeping over him. He’s no longer sure he’ll be able to climb the ladder. All his fears, he knows, lie over these sandbags – fears not of pain but of annihilation, of ceasing to exist, of unimaginable emptiness.

Back in the present day, Daniel begins to investigate letters that his great grandfather wrote and we slowly learn the truth about what happened all those years ago.

I loved this book! It was written simply, but effectively and I was gripped throughout. There were plenty of twists and turns to satisfy my craving for a complex plot and the characters all came to life for me.

The book analyses whether you have time to weigh up all your choices when your life is in danger and whether your responsibility should be to look after yourself or everyone around you.

There were a few sections where I thought the book went too deep into religious discussions, but I’m not a fan of these at the best of times, so most people would probably be OK with it.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story with emotional depth.

Have you read The Blasphemer?

Did you enjoy the religious discussions in it?

Would you be upset if your partner saved themselves first?

2009 Chunkster Historical Fiction

The Children’s Book – A. S. Byatt

I had a love-hate relationship with this book and have to admit that there were several points, especially in the middle, where I nearly gave up on it.

The Children’s Book is set in England in the last few years of the 19th Century and ends in during the first world war. The book follows a vast number of characters, mainly children, as they grow up in this often forgotten period of history.

The book is packed with detail about the news events of the period and the lifestyles they led, but it’s richness was also it’s downfall for me. The book was very long (the hardback I read was 600+ pages of tiny type) and the descriptions so detailed that it lacked momentum. I had to become immersed in the beautiful writing  of each paragraph and try to forget that I still had 400+ pages to go, and I didn’t really know where the story was going. It focused on the minute details of their lives, which although interesting, often failed to engage me and led to my mind wandering. I’m still not sure whether I made the right choice in finishing this book. It took a very long time to read, and although I now know a lot more about that period in history I do not feel I have gained much. It didn’t really entertain me, and the ending didn’t merit the build-up.

I’m sure that lots of people will love this book, but although I enjoy a bit of detail this went a bit far for my tastes. It is a beautifully crafted book though, and will probably win this year’s Booker prize. So if you fancy being transported back to the early part of the 20th century – give it a go.



This is the first book written by A. S. Byatt that I have read, although I vaguely remember giving up Possession after just a few pages.

Do you enjoy reading books written by A. S. Byatt?

Which of her books is the best?