Tag Archives: World War One

The River Between Us by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2021 (10 June) | c.500p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The River Between Us by Liz FenwickOn the rebound from her divorce, Theo buys a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. The cottage is in a poor state of repair – fortunately the villagers prove to be a useful and practical sort – and Theo soon falls in love with it. Her ties are strengthened when she discovers some letters hidden away, which tell of a love affair between a servant, Zach, and Lady Alice who lived at the nearby manor house of Abbotswood. Their love is divided by the river but also by class and ultimately by war as Zach becomes a soldier in the First World War. In the present day, the remains of soldiers have been uncovered in a field in France. The indications are that they were Tamar men. The village waits to learn their identities.

Liz Fenwick writes the most beautiful romantic stories, each deeply embedded in the place that she loves – Cornwall. I share that love and so I am especially drawn to her novels. There is such a strong sense of place and The River Between Us is no different.

I was immediately drawn to Theo, a middle-aged woman who is starting from scratch all over again, having lost the home she loved. We get to know and like her as she rebuilds her new home and gets to know the people of the village. I do like a novel that features an older woman! Theo is an interesting woman.

The novel moves between the present and the past as Theo investigates the mysterious and unopened letters that she discovers. This is a device but I like it and the letters are soon joined by portraits and the manor itself as a picture is drawn up of society in this remote and beautiful area in the early 1900s before war took away so many of its men. The river symbolises the divide between classes as Zach must deal with his impossible love. I loved Theo’s story but I was also really attracted to Lady Alice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was beautifully narrated by Lucy Scott. This is just the sort of novel that I love to listen to. It carried me away to a place I love and the prose is beautiful and so evocative. I highly recommend it.

Other reviews
The Returning Tide
The Path to the Sea

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

HQ | 2019 (31 October) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ones by Anita FrankIt is 1917 and Stella Marcham is stricken by grief for the loss of her fiancé Gerald, killed in the trenches of France during the Great War, a war which shows no signs of ending. There are still many young men whose lives the war waits to claim. Stella’s family find Stella’s grief hard to deal with and, as the months pass, suspect a mental weakness. They find a solution. Stella’s sister Madeleine is pregnant. Her husband has moved her away from London to the safety of the countryside and his manor house, Greyswick, and the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell, while he continues his war work in the capital. She needs a companion. Both sisters are delighted to see each other and draw comfort from the other. But Stella is worried by how she finds her sister. Madeleine seems unsettled, unhappy, even frightened, and when Stella finds a little toy soldier tucked inside her bed she begins to understand that something is not right with this house. And then the nights are disturbed by the sound of a child crying. A child that cannot possibly exist.

I love a good ghost story and I am drawn to tales of haunted houses and there is something extra chilling and sad about those which are set during the First World War, a time when many wives and mothers were drawn to learn about the spirit world due to the untimely, violent loss of their men and boys. The Lost Ones is beautifully written, with its gorgeous prose as haunted by a lost world as the house is. The descriptions of Greyswick and its grounds are evocative and powerful and the novel has such a strong sense of time, place and mood.

The heart of the novel, though, lies with its cast of characters, in particular Stella and her maid Annie Burrows. Annie’s relationship with Stella is a fascinating one. They’re from different classes and experiences but the two of them are drawn together by what they witness in the house. Annie’s past, as the daughter of a man who died trying to save Stella’s sister in a fire, casts a shadow over the relationship and the novel. Annie is hard to know. We’re presented this world from upstairs, in Stella’s words, in comfort. But Annie’s voice breaks through and it adds a real edge to the novel. Then there are the women who live in the house – Lady Brightwell, her companion and the housekeeper. Each is a scene stealer. Possibly the only character who doesn’t linger in the mind is Madeleine. It’s as if the house has stolen her true self away and she must leave to save herself.

The ghost story is such a good one. It’s poignant and sad and at times pleasingly frightening. There is also another side to things – the treatment of women in the early 20th century, the issue of mental health and grief, male domination of society and the home, and the role of women as both victim and oppressor. Stella had experienced an independent life in France as a nurse. She now has no independence at all. But The Lost Ones is also a novel about love. The moments when Stella remembers the precious, short time she shared with Gerald are upsetting but there comes a time when they start to give her comfort. This is something she has to work through. Just as the house itself must endure darkness before it can re-emerge.

The Lost Ones is an excellent and extremely atmospheric haunted house story set at a time stricken by loss due to the First World War. In this atmosphere of loss, grief, worry and traumatic memories, ghosts thrive. But what is it they’re trying to say? I loved the characters and I really enjoyed exploring the house. I did guess the outcome and there was some predictability but nevertheless this novel is beautifully written and evocative of time and place, just what you need for these long dark evenings.

And what a gorgeous hardback!

The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott

SImon & Schuster | 2019 (31 October) | 504p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline ScottIt is 1921 when Edie receives a photograph in the post. It takes a moment or two for her to take in what she sees. She then realises she’s looking at the face of her husband, who was lost in action four years before, one of so many to have been claimed by the Great War. Edie doesn’t understand why she’s received the photo but it inevitably opens wounds that have barely begun to heal over. It also lights a hope. Could Francis be alive after all? If he is, why didn’t he come home? It stirs up terrible memories for Francis’s brother Harry as well. Harry and Francis fought alongside each other on the front line, beside their other brother, the youngest of the three, Will. Harry now spends his days in northern France and Belgium taking photographs of graves, battle sites, bombed buildings to send back to mourning relatives at home. But now he’s on the hunt for his brother, a soldier who has no known grave. He learns that Edie is also in France searching for the truth, but he doesn’t know where she is. He must search for her as well. She, too, seems lost.

The Photographer of the Lost is a beautifully-written, exquisitely sad tale that moves between 1916/1917 and the frontline experiences of Francis, Harry and Will, and 1921, when both Harry and Edie are in France, separately searching for Francis, seeking closure. Both want to move on but neither can. Harry can’t even escape from France. His memories and his sadness keep him there, plus the need to help widows and mothers who may never be able to visit the graves of their loved ones in foreign soil.

Harry and Edie guide us through this haunting novel but it’s the people they meet on their quests that make The Photographer of the Lost so special. Many of them have both physical and mental scars from the war and each is trying to remember (or forget) in their own way. One man, for example, has made it his life’s work to re-inter soldiers in neat, respectful cemeteries where they can be visited, another is a stone mason who wants to rebuild France with his own hands. And there are several others who have their own stories to tell, their own wounds to bear. But the one thing they are all able to do is to listen. Both Harry and Edie receive comfort as they meet other people all affected by the war.

The Photographer of the Lost is a desperately moving novel that links the war itself with the years of suffering that followed it. It explores the burden of memory for soldiers such as Harry who survived. It is beautifully set in the almost-destroyed towns of northern France and Belgium, such as Arras and Ypres as well as the towns and villages of the Somme. The scars of the land reflect those of the people who died there and those who are effectively the walking wounded, unable to keep away. At times I felt the novel was almost too sad to bear and, strangely, this distanced me a little from Edie and Harry, but the beauty of this novel and the elegance of its writing cannot be denied.

Before the Fall by Juliet West

Publisher: Mantle/Pan
Pages: 348
Year: 2014 (Pb: 28 August)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Before the Fall Pb by Juliet WestReview
Hannah Loxwood is struggling to make ends meet. The year is 1916 and her husband George is in the trenches, fighting in a war that too often comes perilously close to home, not just in the dreaded telegrams or in the return of men unrecognisable from the men who left, but also in the zeppelin raids that terrorise London time after time. With two small children, Hannah has moved into the home of her unhappy sister Jen and her lecherous husband, always under scrutiny. Hannah is lucky to avoid employment in the factories unlike her closest friend Dor, with her poisoned yellow hair and skin, and instead manages to find work in a cafe. Money and food are short, life is difficult, but a light sparks in Hannah when she makes a friend in Daniel Blake, a mender of ships and a frequenter of the cafe. Initially, it looks like Daniel is courting Dor but it’s soon clear that Dor is nothing to Daniel but an excuse for him to grow closer to Hannah. Quickly, and in the most guilty of circumstances, Daniel and Hannah fall in love.

Based on a true story, Before the Fall is a beautiful and, perhaps not surprisingly, painful evocation of this most difficult of times. The war itself is rarely touched upon, instead it is a dark shadow that has impacted on everyone’s life, making itself known through divided families, bombs, women in the workplace and in pubs, food shortages, letters from the trenches, upset children, white feathers, limbless men. Hannah and her two children long for letters from her husband, George, uninformative as they are thanks to censorship, and although we rarely meet George ourselves through the course of the novel he is not to be forgotten, perhaps even more so as he becomes a source of guilt.

London is wonderfully portrayed, especially during the times when it is under attack. The factories, streets, pubs and homes, with many people living almost on top of one another, are vividly painted. Dor is a fabulous character, adding colour to the wartime grey that characterises Hannah, at least in my mind. Hannah’s thoughts and feelings are transparent throughout, thanks to the first person present tense narrative that guides us through her story, but Daniel is less open and this is heightened by the switch to third person prose for the chapters dealing with his life. This inevitably, I think, draws us closer to Hannah but it does mean this reader at least kept Daniel at arm’s length.

From the very first page it is clear that this is not a love story that is likely to end happily for anyone concerned in it. Hannah is a sympathetic character. She is also very young and this life that she finds herself in – poor, husbandless, dependent on family with a father that always confuses her with her long dead sister, hungry – is not an easy one, exacerbated as it is by the general lack of freedom that women endured in those day, especially those whose husbands were absent. Everywhere there are judging eyes. Everyone is judged – men aren’t exempt, examined as they are for clues to why they are not in France. But a woman who falls in love with another man while her husband is fighting in the trenches for his king and country?

I was moved by this love story. Its ending was not a surprise but that didn’t make it less powerful. My only issue with the novel is that I, too, found it very hard to forget the poor husband! I found the character of Daniel difficult to like. The tragedy in his past life failed to make me see him as more than a secretive man who could do young Hannah and her children great harm. I felt Hannah deserved better. I think her husband did, too.

Before the Fall is a beautifully written and compassionate novel, demanding to be read in just one or two sittings. I think it will hold its own very well among the World War 1 novels that are being published in this commemorative year.

The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton

Publisher: Corvus
Pages: 397
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert WiltonReview
On the morning of 28 June 1914, one hundred years ago today, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were shot dead in the streets of Sarajevo, an act that set the world alight with war. The descent into war was, though, far from straightforward – the principle powers of the day played a complicated game, in secret, using diplomats and spies rather than the soldiers that were to replace them in just weeks. Published today to mark the centenary of the assassinations, The Spider of Sarajevo, brings the shady world of the spies to the fore, focusing on the weeks which led up to the events of 28 June 1914, moving between the men (and occasional woman) who dealt in lies and secrets across Europe’s borders and yet were themselves pawns – or bait.

The oldest, most secretive and respected of all spy offices – the Comptroller-General for Scrutiny and Survey in London – has a problem. Opposing him across the Channel is a new spymaster with extraordinary reach and control, extending from Berlin and Austria to the unstable Balkans and beyond. Nameless, he is known to the Old Man in London as the Spider. The war they fight is more than personal, it will have deadly consequences.

Four young people are hired as spies to tempt out the Spider. They are each very different – anthropologist Ballentyne, businessman Cade, charmer Duval and the fiercely clever Hathaway, the sole woman amongst the four. The agent responsible for their safety is Major Knox, a man who realises before most the extent of the danger they are all in. Dispatched across the continent, from France to Constantinople and St Petersburg, the four spies chase shadows, creating their own networks and relationships from the men and women that they encounter in cafes, dinner parties, diplomatic functions, or in the mountain villages of the Balkans. With four leading figures to follow, it’s quite likely that some will become favourites and brave Ballentyne and fierce Hathaway are mine.

The Spider of Sarajevo is a deliciously complicated affair – its opening list of individuals ‘named in the dossier’ is invaluable and I frequently referred back to it. Each of our spies has an increasingly large circle around them while the influence of the Spider becomes ever more noticeable as the heat of his hunt intensifies. The reader must have his or her wits about them as they follow the trail. But the characters have more than enough warmth in their veins for the reader to engage with more than just their brain. I cared very deeply about the fate of our four spies, especially as all of the clues, from the title and the publication date onwards, remind us what lies in store.

This sense of countdown is strong and it intensifies the tension, which is also heightened by a series of action moments which are extremely thrilling and dramatic, including one in a submarine base and another during a great regatta of German and British battleships at Kiel, an event which seems almost preposterous when one thinks how close this is to war.

Robert Wilton’s prose is as superb as his plotting and there is an irony and detachment in its tone that is especially effective during the moments of greatest tension. Surprises and shocks are delivered with impeccable timing. There are also some pleasingly witty asides, especially during our chapters in the company of Hathaway. This is a skillful narrative, mixed up within it are letters, cryptic telegrams, notes and reports drawn from the archives of the Comptroller-General for Scrutiny and Survey. Some characters we meet only briefly but they make for some terrific portraits nonetheless – I particularly enjoyed the mysterious Valfierno and his verbal duel with one of our four during a memorable railway journey. The persona of the author, and his relationship to his subjects and his readers, is likewise intriguing.

Even though the outcome for Europe is never in doubt, the pace is fierce and there are surprises in store within these pages and it is necessary for the reader to pay the closest of attention in order to reap the rewards of the shocks and twists. The Spider of Sarajevo is the third novel in Robert Wilton’s Comptroller-General series, set several hundred years after the Civil War events of its predecessor, the masterpiece Traitor’s Field. Yet again, Robert Wilton proves he is not only a fine storyteller but also a master of untangling our history during its most complicated and perilous episodes, whatever the century.

Other review
Traitor’s Field

The Devil’s Ark by Stephen Bywater

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 404
Year: 2014 (8 May)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Devil's Ark by Stephen BywaterReview
Harry Ward is a man damaged by war, haunted by its victims and tormented by its memories. Twelve years after the First World War ended, Ward returns to Mesopotamia, the land where he fought the Turk and almost lost his mind. This time, though, his mission is to rediscover himself. But all that blows away with the sand when he is hired to replace a missing photographer on an excavation of a ziggurat, or primitive pyramid, outside the great walls of the ancient city of Nineveh. Older than Stonehenge, the ziggurat reveals layer below layer of sealed chambers and, as the small team descends into the dark, dreams increasingly disturb Ward’s sleep. He must learn that there is much more to fear than the ghosts of recent wars.

The Devil’s Ark combines historical adventure and horror. Set in the Middle East during the 1930s, it evokes the archaeological desert world of Howard Carter or Agatha Christie. The cast of characters would certainly feel at home in a Poirot tale – Russians, Americans, the English mingle (at a distance) with members of local ancient tribes, deemed superstitious and expendable by Tilden, the archaeologist in charge, a man more concerned with riches than science. With the men are their wives, Tilden’s hysterical, cowering Susan, the American Suarez’s beautiful, imperfect Clara, the Russian Stanislav’s Sasha, a woman he views as being little more than a comforting lap. There is a widow, Mrs Jackson, who provides homely security until she, too, sees something on the ceiling of one of the ziggurat chambers.

Told in the first person by Harry Ward, The Devil’s Ark moves from telling the story of a man recovering from war, finding comfort in the arms of a woman he shouldn’t touch, to the obsessed thoughts of a photographer who knows he is being watched and whose dreams are enflamed by female monsters. Once people begin to disappear and suspicion points at all, including Ward, it becomes harder for Tilden and the others to ignore the engravings and images they discover in the ziggurat. The line is crossed from archaeological mystery and psychological thriller into horror.

The atmosphere of The Devil’s Ark is superb. It brings to life the spirit of 1930s’ archaeology, with all its flaws, excitement and sense of adventure. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the thrill of the excavation as more and more is revealed. The elements of the desert, both the hot sand and, more surprisingly, the relentless rain, contribute to the mood of the novel. The interaction between this bunch of colourful characters is intriguing and entertaining. Although most of the people remain a mystery through to the last page this suits the feel of the book. We inevitably know more about our narrator Harry but even he is careful what he reveals to us. We learn snippets, most of which suggest that anything the Assyrians could do in terms of violence and outrage, modern man could equal in the trenches of war.

The second half of the novel has a very different feel to it as the mysteries begin to be explained and horror replaces Ward’s soul searching and his focus on his relationship with Clara. Clara herself remains lost in the mist and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. The fate of others among the team, though, is quite clear and very frightening. One in particular will stay with me for a long time. While I preferred the first half (probably due to my fascination with Middle East archaeology), the second half was unputdownable, menacing and memorable.

As with all horror, the most important element to my mind is atmosphere and The Devil’s Ark has atmosphere galore, largely because of its historical setting. The entire novel felt like a book out of time, for its 1930s’ location and for the mysteries contained within it. This gave the horror an edge and made it easier to accept, reminding the reader of the curse surrounding the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The novel captures its time as well as the fear of the unknown and it is that, more than what the tomb or prison actually contains, that gives The Devil’s Ark its power and appeal.

At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 400
Year: 2013, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy and review copy

Please note that in America, this book is called The First of July.

At Break of Day by Elizabeth SpellerReview
On 1 July 1916 indescribable horror took place in the muddy shell-holed fields and waterlogged trenches of the Somme. And yet, within these 390 pages, Elizabeth Speller brings the beauty of her prose to bear on this most infamous of war days, depicting the path that led four young men to that particular place at that particular time.

One of our young men, Jean-Baptiste Mallet, is French and his dream in 1913 is to steal a boat and let the Somme carry him to the sea and a new life beyond. The transformation over the coming year of his home on the Somme, not to mention of Jean-Baptiste himself, is profound and focuses our attention on this one small area of France. The other men are from further afield – Harry Sydenham, a young English minor aristocrat who wants nothing more than to live in New York with his new bride; Benedict Chatto, a painfully sensitive organist and musician from Gloucester who sees colours where others hear musical notes; and Frank Stanton, a London shop worker whose principal ambition is to buy a bicycle and, much further down his list, marry a respectable girl (not a suffragette).

They’re not alone, of course. We also get to know their friends and families, most particularly Harry’s relationship with his young French stepmother, Isabelle, and Benedict’s friendship with Theo, a man who knows all about making false promises, and ends up in the airforce, leaving Ben to fight on foot. For me, the most intriguing relationship is between Jean-Baptiste and Dr Vignon. This story could have filled its own novel. But although the four main stories are largely separate, there are places where they touch and pleasure comes from spotting those moments, some of which are less obvious than others.

The stories all converge on the Somme on 1 July 1916. It’s a progress that’s inevitable and you can’t help but become more and more fearful as you get to know and like these characters and know that it can only end in one place. The statistics mean that not all will survive. Maybe none at all. The last third of the novel takes place on that day, in and around the trenches as well as in no man’s land. Elizabeth Speller writes so beautifully and her descriptions of the fighting and the fallen as well as the confusion and the fear are so stunning and memorable that at times it is painfully harrowing. Her meticulous research also means there are things to discover, such as the soldiers who won’t shoot enemy messenger dogs and instead risk their lives to rescue them, or the cycling soldiers who have to carry their bicycles on their backs because the terrain is so unsuitable.

The four stories are distinct in character. Three are told in the third person, while one is told in the first. None are especially outstanding individuals, none would have been prepared for what lay in store, but what they have to deal with and the heroism with which they greet it, in the face of sheer terror, is presented so wonderfully and poetically by Elisabeth Speller that it is impossible to read without feeling great sadness and tension and love. I read At Break of Day over the Remembrance weekend and day and it was even more powerful for it.

Elizabeth Speller has previously written about the impact of World War I on one character who fought in it, John Emmett, in The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, both novels I recommend enormously. At Break of Day confirms my belief that Elizabeth Speller is one of the finest writers I have ever read and I would urge you to discover the beauty of her words for yourself as well as the poetry of her vision of this painful period in our past that must not be forgotten.

Other reviews
The Return of Captain John Emmett
The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton