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‘Wake’ by Anna Hope ****

‘Remembrance Day 1920: A wartime secret connects three women’s lives: Hettie whose wounded brother won’t speak; Evelyn who still grieves for her lost lover; and Ada, who has never received an official letter about her son’s death, and is still waiting for him to come home. As the mystery that binds them begins to unravel, far away, in the fields of France, the Unknown Soldier embarks on his journey home. The mood of the nation is turning towards the future – but can these three women ever let go of the past?’

9780552779463I had heard only good things about Wake, and some of my very favourite book bloggers have absolutely loved it, which was reason enough for me to pick up the relatively hefty hardback when I spotted it in the library.  I love historical fiction, but do not feel as though I’ve read much of it at late.  It perhaps goes without saying that had high hopes for the novel.

Wake is set across five days in November 1920, beginning in Arras in northern France (a city which I’m very familiar with) and then following several characters in London (ditto).  Its short span does not stop the novel from containing an awful lot.  Hope’s prose is so well structured, and I very much liked the way in which she drew protagonists from different places and walks of life.  We follow a single woman, a dancer working in a Hammersmith hall, a mother whose son is dead but who does not quite believe it, and an ex-Army Captain.  Each character has been broken in some way by the First World War, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally.  Every single one changes, or is changed, over the course of the five day period; Hope has clearly put a lot of thought into the realistic emotional changes which could occur, given the situations which each has been put into, or scenes which they encounter during this time.  Not quite knowing for the most part what would transpire for each protagonist, it made for a very rich, textured reading experience.

Wake is compelling.  The way in which Hope approached the novel was both sympathetic and well researched; I found myself interested in every character, and every scene.  As a debut novel, it is incredibly accomplished, and I come away feeling no surprise whatsoever that so many readers have raved about it.  It did not quite reach the heady heights of a novel which I adored, but I very much admired Hope’s effort, and will not hesitate to pick up another of her books in the near future.

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‘Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology’ – edited by Tim Kendall ****

Oxford World’s Classics’ beautifully produced Poetry of the First World War is one of the most important and far-reaching anthologies to have been published in this, World War One’s centenary year.  In his introduction, Kendall, the book’s editor, writes: ‘this anthology represents the work of poets who lived through the First World War, from Thomas Hardy, 74 at war’s outbreak and the unrivalled elder statesman of English letters, to [John] Edgell Rickword, 58 years his junior, who left school to enlist in 1916’.

Kendall’s introduction works well, and his passion about First World War poetry comes across immediately.  He states that he has tried to include poems which are as diverse as possible, making room for those written by the following throughout: ‘Men and women, soldiers and civilians, patriots and pacifists – the poets of the First World War came in all forms’. Kendall describes the way in which, ‘during the First World War, poetry became established as the barometer for the nation’s values: the greater the civilization, the greater its poetic heritage’.  He then goes on to say that ‘pride in their nation’s literary achievements was a common ingredient in the patriotism of soldiers and civilians alike’.

Kendall has made well considered contributions to Poetry of the First World War, and successfully encompasses writers – all from Britain and Ireland, mind – from all walks of life.  The poems which he has selected were penned between 1914 and 1966.  He has also included something a little different; a selection of Music Hall and trench songs relating to, or prevalent at the time of, the conflict.  The dates in which the poems were written – often very precise – have been included too; this is an important yet simple piece of information which is so often missing from poetry anthologies.

As with all Oxford World’s Classics editions, a wealth of important contributory information has been included, from an extensive selection of informative notes, to a large bibliography.  Each poet’s introduction begins with a comprehensive biography, the majority of which relates heavily to their place within the First World War, and all of which have been carefully written.  The chronology of war poets and the conflict which has been provided is a useful tool.

As with most collections of this nature, there is an imbalance between the showcased poets and the number of their poems included; here there are ten by Thomas Hardy and seventeen by Ivor Gurney, for example, but only one from the likes of established names such as A.E. Housman, Lawrence Binyon and David Jones.  Poetry of the First World War is still, however, a very enjoyable, thought-provoking and well considered collection, which deserves a place on every bookshelf.

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‘Only Remembered’, edited by Michael Morpurgo ***

‘Only Remembered’ (Jonathan Cape)

Only Remembered, edited by Michael Morpurgo, is part of what will undoubtedly be swathes of First World War-based literature and non-fiction published in this, its centenary year.  This particular volume is aimed at children, and has been illustrated by Ian Beck.  The book’s subtitle states that it presents ‘powerful words and pictures about the war that changed our world’.

A wealth of different takes on and elements of importance in the conflict can be found within the pages of Only Remembered.  Many different sources have been used as inspiration too, from poems to extracts from comic books like ‘Charley’s War’, and from musings about what it would have been like to be a pilot in the RAF, to a critique of the trench-produced newspaper, ‘The Wipers Times’.  Famous contributors can be found amongst the ranks – politician Lord Paddy Ashdown, actors Joanna Lumley, Tony Robinson and Emma Thompson, and writers Richard Curtis and Jacqueline Wilson, the former children’s laureate.  Oddly enough, there is no material here which has been penned by Michael Morpurgo, despite the novels which he has set against the backdrop of the First World War.

Whilst some of the contributions are rather simply written – to suit a much younger audience, one feels – others feel far more poetic and well-rounded.  Actor Jeremy Irvine, for example, talks about fighter planes ‘jousting in the sky… a chivalry that couldn’t be found in the bloody slaughter of trench warfare on the ground’.  The random ordering of the work suits the style of the book, as does the way in which the authors have adopted different styles to present their information.  Some of the contributions take the form of mini essays, which show how the war impacted upon those who fought within it.  Others merely introduce poems and comics by using just a paragraph or two.  In this way, the book does tend to feel a little uneven.

Only Remembered hascertainly had a modern twist put upon it at some points.  In one of the first contributions in the book, Shami Chakrabarti, who introduces Wilfred Owen’s haunting poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, refers to the poet as ‘perhaps… an original “emo”‘.  I found this an incredibly odd analogy, and hoped that the rest of the book would not follow the same pattern.  Thankfully it does not, and all of the other personalities who have contributed do seem to take the First World War a lot more seriously.

There is certainly some thought-provoking work of quality here, and my favourite pieces were Jeremy Irvine writing about fighter pilots, Richard Curtis talking about the World War One-based sketch on Blackadder, and Jacqueline Wilson’s musings on author Noel Streatfeild’s war.  To conclude, Only Remembered is quite a short book, but it feels as though it will be an important one, which is sure to answer questions that children may have about the conflict.

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Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (20th June 2014)

‘Findings’

Findings by Kathleen Jamie ****
1. I have wanted to read Kathleen Jamie’s work for such a long time.  She is both a poet and a nature writer, and I seized upon Findings when I found it in the library.  Throughout, Jamie describes her travels in Scotland, demonstrating the power of the country’s landscapes upon her, and upon the wildlife which inhabits it.
2. Throughout, Jamie touches upon so many elements of nature – the use of darkness in respect to harbouring evils, Neolithic remains, the way in which technology has infiltrated even the oldest sites, whale watching, and the specimens inside Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall are just a few examples of the essays she has written here.
3. Findings, as I expected it to be, is absolutely fascinating, and the photographs throughout add so much to each essay.

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The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch and Richard van Emden ***
1. My boyfriend’s grandparents gave me this book an age ago, and it only came out of my book choice jar last month.  Patch has passed away since The Last Fighting Tommy, but at the time of publication, he was 108 years old, and the only surviving veteran of the First World War.
2. The camaraderie which he describes throughout is touching, particularly in this, the centenary year of the beginning of the conflict.
3. I found some elements of it a little repetitive, but overall, a fascinating portrait of a very humble man has been presented with the utmost care and consideration.

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Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren **

‘Looking for Enid’

1. I love Blyton’s fiction, but I did not receive a favourable impression of the woman herself when I watched the BBC drama ‘Enid’ a few years ago.  I hoped that reading what I thought was a biography of her life would be enlightening, and would show me what Blyton was really like behind her kindly author facade.  This book, however, is not a straightforward author biography; instead, it charts McLaren’s journey in travelling to the houses in which Blyton lived and the places in which she holidayed.
2. I like the way in which McLaren states that Blyton’s work should still be read in adulthood, alongside such other authors as Proust and Waugh.
3. Much of the novel is told through dialogue exchanges between McLaren and his friend Kate, and he also (rather annoyingly) imagines that he is writing Blyton-esque books at intervals.  The use of both techniques made the whole feel a little woven and patchy.  I shall be picking up Barbara Stoney’s biography of Blyton at some point in the future, and hope that I enjoy it far more than I did the sadly disappointing Looking for Enid.

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‘Remembrance’ by Theresa Breslin ***

Remembrance is written by Carnegie Medal-winning author Theresa Breslin, who has rather a lot of titles to her name.  Its story is centered around the First World War, beginning as it does in the summer of 1915 and spanning the remainder of the conflict.  The premise is that in a small Scottish village named Stratharden, the Great War ‘is to alter the course of five young lives for ever’.

‘Remembrance’ by Theresa Breslin

A group of teenagers, all of whom live within the village, are brought together at a picnic and become firm friends ‘despite their social differences’.  Charlotte Armstrong-Barnes, effectively the protagonist of the novel, has just joined the Red Cross, much to the disdain of her traditional mother, who thinks that organising charity events is far more fitting for a girl of Charlotte’s class and standing.  Charlotte’s brother Francis, seven years her senior, and perhaps the most interesting character in Remembrance, believes that patriotism is ‘the one thing that can unite people.  It takes priority over religious differences, or class, or money, or social position’.  He flatly refuses to join the Army like many young men of his age, preferring instead to focus his efforts upon sketching and helping to manage the family estate.

The Armstrong-Barnes’ invite the three Dundas siblings, children of a local shopkeeper, to a picnic which they decide to host on Bank Holiday Monday – twins Maggie and John Malcolm, and their younger brother Alex.  Alex, despite being only fourteen, has grand ideas about joining up when he is of age to, and John Malcolm is also intent upon doing his bit.  Breslin’s characters have all been fleshed out well – not to the extent that they are vivid in terms of their appearances, but with regard to their personalities and dreams.  She demonstrates the way in which the lives of her characters – and the lives of those around them – are impacted by the war.  There are changes in careers, and dreams built for a different and peaceful future shelved indefinitely, not to mention loss, grief and death.  The irrevocable change which the war brought with it has been deftly considered.  Breslin also takes into account the way in which naivety and innocence can be applied to wartime situations, and how such elements can so easily be lost.

Breslin has taken a lot of wartime-related themes into account in her novel, and addresses such elements as patriotism, franchise, equality and the futility of war.  Pacifism, and what it means within the wider community, has also been addressed.  The third person perspective which she has adopted works well with the unfolding story.  Interesting and sometimes conflicting viewpoints have often been taken into account, and this forms perhaps the strongest element of the novel.  Remembrance is a well plotted and engaging novel, which is about courage and friendship above all else, and which is certainly a worthy addition to First World War literature.

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