Tag Archives: Second World War

13 Best Books of 2013

You know it’s that time of year when all of the ‘Best of’ lists start appearing… I love browsing the lists, getting ideas on what to read next, ideas for gifts and just generally having a nosy to see if some of my favourite books of the year feature. I thought it would be lovely to do my own as I haven’t done one before – since I’ve read 53 books so far this year, a bit of a record for me, I’m having trouble narrowing down my list of favourites… So, with this in mind, I’ve gone for my 13 favourite books read in 2013 (in no particular order). I’m hopeful that next year I read as many wonderful books!

Top 13 of 2013

Click on the links to see my original review

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

How could this not make my list? I absolutely loved it, and found it equally gripping and infuriating with all of its twists and turns! I read along with my book group, and have since lent my copy to many people, all of whom have really enjoyed it. It’s an intelligent thriller – hopefully I’ll find something as good to kick off next year with as big a bang as this felt like in 2013.

LIfe After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved this book as well, the way Atkinson had structured her novel, giving main character Ursula repeated attempts at life, events repeating and changing thanks to the tiniest details and circumstances. I love the way it highlights how changeable life can be, and how each small moment can have a great effect on later events. It’s on a lot of the ‘Best of’ lists I’ve seen so far and I certainly think it deserves its place.

Burial_Rites_HBD_FCBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

This book was part of a very good run of audiobooks I listened to in the autumn, a début novel set in Iceland in the 1800s. It describes the last few days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. I thought it was really evocative, and I loved listening to it as I think the narrator did a wonderful job capturing the tone of each of the characters and the pronunciation of all of the Icelandic names and places. I look forward to reading her next book!

The-Presidents-HatThe President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (Paperback)

This was such a charming book, all about former French president Mitterand’s hat, and how it was found by a stranger and started to have a magical positive influence on his life. The hat flits on to other holders and casts its same spell on each of them – it’s such a lovely evocative story of France in the ’80s – I’ve passed this on to several family members and each one of them has been as charmed as I was!

9781447212201Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman (Paperback)

I adored this book, it was one of our book club choices and I think everyone really enjoyed it. It was part family saga, part murder mystery and I thought it’s sense of time and place was so evocative – I really felt as if I was back in the ’50s, sipping cocktails on a moon-drenched lawn. Another great Book Club read from 2013 – I’m not sure what 2014 has in store for the Book Club next year yet but I’m hoping there’ll be some more gems.

humansThe Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans tells the story of an alien sent to earth to assassinate a mathematics professor who has just discovered the secret of prime numbers, by an alien species who don’t think humans are quite ready to handle that information. What follows is a series of hilarious events as the alien tries to understand human culture; a love letter to what it means to be human and observations on just how ridiculous we really are. It’s warm and funny and intelligent and I would recommend it to all fellow humans.

vile bodiesVile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

I read this as part of my Evelyn Waugh Month, as a way to get to know the work of a particular author I hadn’t read much by before. This book was everything I wanted it to be and more – it’s a comical, light-hearted satire of the young and beautiful of London in the ’30s. I think it’s my favourite of Waugh’s books and it had me giggling away to myself. I’m thinking of doing the same again for next year with a different author – I haven’t decided who that will be yet so please watch this space!

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Yes, it took me years to get round to reading this, and no, it did not disappoint. Most people know the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy but Jane Austen’s prose is the best way to discover it. It’s a witty classic, and one that deserves its place on best read lists. A book I imagine I will read again and again throughout my life and never tire of.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is all about Death, and his grip on people as the events of World War II unfolds. It’s such an original way to tell the story and I became quite attached to the characters, even though I knew all could not end well. This book had me wailing, one of just a handful of books to affect me so. The film adaptation is coming out at the end of January next year so I will be looking forward to seeing it!

pereiramaintainsPereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

Set in Lisbon in the late ’30s, this novella demonstrates how even the most unassuming of people can have the courage to disagree with what is going on around them. There is an undercurrent of menace in the novel, as the effects of the Spanish Civil War and the onslaught of World War II make their presence known, that Tabucchi builds and builds into a tense and devastating moment. One of those books that stays with you long after reading.

panopticonThe Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

I have praised this book to practically everyone who has asked what my favourite book of the year was. It’s a sharp, intelligent and warm account of young offender and foster child Anais, who is moved into a home for troubled teens, known as The Panopticon. The language in this book rings out and Anais is such a compelling character, who has experienced far too much already in her 15 years, leaving her jaded and cynical. I can’t wait to see what Fagan writes next.

just kidsJust Kids by Patti Smith

This was one of the first audiobooks I listened to this year and it was the perfect introduction. An autobiography of Patti Smith’s younger years in New York with lover and struggling photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, this was narrated by Smith herself and it was so moving. You could hear the emotion in her voice as she read certain passages – if you are planning to read this at some point, I would highly recommend the audiobook.

crimson petalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

I remember watching the BBC adaptation of this book a couple of years ago and being blown away by a new take on Victorian fiction, with its gritty detail. The book is even better, leading you through the London streets as you follow Sugar from brothel to ale house to higher places. You can practically smell what is being described. Sugar is an unforgettable character and I loved diving into her world. I have just finished reading Michel Faber’s début novel Under the Skin which was also brilliant – hopefully a review of that to follow soon.

For a full list of all of the books I’ve read this year, have a peek at my Books 2013 page.

We Love This Book have been asking book bloggers for their pick of 2013 books – read all of their recommendations here! What are your favourite books read in 2013? Anything you’re looking forward to in 2014? I’ve still to read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Aside from that, I will be sweeping my bookshelves and reading what I already own as well as getting stuck into my Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, to expand my horizons a little and read one non-fiction book a month. Does anyone else have big plans for their reading next year?

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Book Review: Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Solcombe

Monsieur-le-CommandantIn Monsieur Le Commandant, writer Paul-Jean Husson writes a letter in Occupied France to a local high-ranking German officer stationed in his town. In the letter, Paul-Jean talks of his life just before and during the Second World War and devotes many pages to describing his struggling love for his son’s wife, German film star Ilse. The twist in this novel is that Paul-Jean isn’t writing to protect himself or plead for anyone’s soul, but to justify what he feels is an inexcusable hesitation and delay in outing a Jew. The letter begins with Paul-Jean relating how Ilse came into his life, after marrying his son and moving to France to set up a life. What follows are a set of tragic circumstances, including accidental death, family breakdown and Alzheimer’s as well as all of the disruption and death that the coming of the Second World War brings.

I found this to be a very powerful book – Paul-Jean claims to wholly approve of, and actively encourages, the capture of Jews in France and their removal to concentration camps. He voices some strong and abhorrent opinions which are pretty challenging. There are several episodes which I found hard to stomach, particularly a scene involving the torture of a young couple involved in the Resistance which I could barely stand to read. It’s one of those books that you don’t really ‘enjoy’ reading as such – that isn’t its purpose. It makes you feel uncomfortable as some of the views and actions of those involved are discomfiting. You are meant to be judging Paul-Jean and rightly so. There was part of me that didn’t want to be seen reading this book – I was sitting on the bus trying to hide the pages from people’s eyes, afraid that people would be horrified by what I was reading, this terrible testimony on one man’s vehement anti-semitism.

I know I’m just being naive, hoping for a better, more honourable ending for the characters but I was a little disappointed that after the letter ends, there is a summary of what happened to each of the characters. While I was reading Paul-Jean’s letter, I liked the ambiguity, wondering if his vehemence towards the Jews was real or a cover for protecting his daughter-in-law from being revealed to be a Jew. I didn’t want to know what happened – in some ways it would have been better to be left wondering about the characters. There are so many untold stories from the Second World War, so many people who disappeared that it seems fairer to let some of them survive with their dignity intact.

I find it really hard to read about the Holocaust, and I’m starting to feel like I have exhausted that period in history in my reading. I genuinely find it really hard-going and difficult to deal with – Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was a particular example which had a profound effect on me (which I covered in my list of Tearjerkers), and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak too. Monsieur Le Commandant is not an easy read and won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think it is important to read books that challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone – that’s what is so powerful about literature. It can transport you to a different place and time, and open your eyes to some of the joys and, in this case, the horrors of human nature. If you’re interested in reading more about fiction that makes you uncomfortable, there is a great post on Confronting vs Comforting Fiction on the Savidge Reads blog (which I noted has Monsieur Le Commandant featured in a photo of several confronting books).

I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher, Gallic Books. For further reading on Slocombe’s novel, there’s an interview with the author on Gallic Books’ website, where he discusses his inspiration for the novel and the project he was involved in. Gallic Books have sent me another couple of books for review The Foundling Boy and The People in the Photo. The former is out in December and the latter isn’t out until next year (so I will wait a while before reading and reviewing that one). Gallic Books have sent me several books so far and I have enjoyed them all in different ways so I’m looking forward to reading these.

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Tearjerkers

panopticonIt’s not often that I cry while reading a book. I’m not really sure why that is, as I find myself crying at TV programmes and films fairly often. I was recently reading Jenni Fagan’s wonderful debut novel The Panopticon and it had me welling up in the middle of my lunch hour. I had to stop reading to regain some modicum of control so I wouldn’t be blubbing into my laptop. (Those salty tears aren’t good for circuit boards I hear…)

So this had me thinking, which books have I found truly moving, enough to have me crying, either at the beauty of the novel, or the tragedy that is unfolding. I’ve come up with a short list:

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

captain corellis mandolinThis is the first book I remember crying over. I was reading it for a critical essay I was writing for my English Standard Grade. I can’t remember why I picked it – I think it may have been a recommendation from my Mum. Anyway, the bit that got me involved a firing squad and an act of bravery. I won’t say much more than that as I don’t want to give anything away but I remember sitting in the back of the car (most likely on one of the frequent trips to Glasgow to see family), having to stop reading so I wouldn’t start bawling and my brother wouldn’t give me a slagging for crying at a book.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song was a formative book in my life, in that it was the experience of reading it that made me realise that I wanted to go to university and study English. I’d always loved books but for some reason it had never really occurred to me before that this could be more than just a past-time. I had dreamt of being an author, of course, and had written short stories and childish novels but that was as far as the dream had gone. But getting back to the crying…I studied this as part of my Higher English course and it really spoke to me – I started looking at the landscape more and thinking more often about national identity and a person’s connection to their homeland. I cried at this in the middle of an English class, while my teacher read out a passage towards the end of the book about Chris’s husband and the First World War. There seemed to be some kind of collective grief going on as I remember several others in the class wiping their eyes as well…

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

j1cmqfdNever have I cried so much at one book than I did when I read Sophie’s Choice. I read it several summers ago, when I was still at uni and my flatmate had gone home for the summer, leaving me all on my lonesome. I was working almost full-time in a pub but even that didn’t seem to fill up my time off so much, so I spent hours and hours just lazing about reading. I love the memory of that summer, days stretching out in front of me… I had picked the book up at the local Salvation Army shop for 50p – it was an old battered edition with a film still with Meryl Streep on the cover. I had often heard comments about Sophie’s Choice but didn’t really know what it was about – boy was I in for a roller coaster ride! It is such a powerful book, and one that I think should be recommended reading for those who truly want to understand the Holocaust and the misery of the concentration camps. It put a lot of things into perspective for me, and despite History classes studying the Second World War, this was the first time that I really comprehended the devastation, cruelty and sheer number of casualties in the war. I would urge everyone to read it – although I’d also warn you that it certainly isn’t an easy-going read.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefAnd to the Second World War again with this one – it is a young adult book so slightly more accessible than Sophie’s Choice but by no means less affecting. It is the War seen through the eyes of young Liesel, adopted by a family in a new town and trying to understand the injustices and contradictions of the war and life in Nazi Germany. We follow her as she steals books and food, we see her being taught to read by her adopted father, we see her offering some solace to Jews and we hope that the war will not have too devastating an effect on her life. Which is too much to ask of course, the book is narrated by Death, the Grim Reaper, and from the very beginning you know that not everyone will survive. This is a very moving book, and one that is told so inventively.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

harrypotterhalfbloodprinceNow onto something a little more light-hearted (if you can call it that!). If you’re a Harry Potter fan then you’ll know what happens at the end of this book so I shall not divulge in case there is someone reading this who hasn’t succumbed (rather unlikely) to the amazing series that is Harry Potter. I can’t remember if I have re-read this one – I’ve definitely read the first five twice – but certainly every time a certain scene plays in the film I start welling up again…

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of LoveI can’t remember what sparked me off with this book particularly – it was just so beautiful and some of the images of book pages and words were just perfect. I wrote a review of this last year which you can read here if you’d like to know more – it was one of my more essay-like reviews so I think I’ll let it speak for me again!

I love having those moments with books, where you are just so involved and you can’t help but shed a tear or two. What are your tearjerker books? Have you ever cried while reading a book in public? One of these days I know I’m going to end up howling on a bus on my morning commute!

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Quick Book Review: Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

pereiramaintains

Pereira Maintains, a novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, may be slight in size but it is certainly big on impact. It’s one of those novels that, even though not a lot happens during the course of the novel, you get really drawn in to and in which the characters just seem very real.

It’s set in Lisbon in the late 1930s, when Dr. Pereira begins the task of editing the cultural pages on the small newspaper the Lisboa. He has the idea of writing advance obituaries for prominent writers of the time and enlists the help of a young man Monteiro Rossi after reading an article written by him on death which left him very affected. He lets himself in for much more than he bargained for, compelled to support Rossi in a world that is beginning to feel the effects of the Spanish Civil War and the coming of the Second World War, and which imposes consequences on those who try to oppose the changes.

I read this book a few weeks ago now but it has stayed with me. I know it is set in Portugal before the Second World War but I feel that Dr. Pereira is alive somewhere, if not in body then in spirit. The spirit of a man quietly questioning what is going on around him, wondering if he has the courage to stand up to it all. I actually want to pick this book up and start reading it again. I feel that in this country so much great literature passes us by, that we only get a small selection of foreign fiction. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough – I’ll definitely be looking to read more translated fiction in future as this book has reminded me of why I love it so much!

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Book Review: The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

TheConeGatherers_GQ_02Jul12_b_262x393

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins is a book that definitely takes its reader by surprise. I didn’t know much about it I’ll admit, other than mention of it years ago in English classes in school. I can see why this would work excellently as a literature class text – so much so that I almost think the best way to discuss this book is thematically; innocence, humanity, good and evil. Whichever way you talk about it there is much to discuss.

The story of The Cone-Gatherers begins as two brothers are working on Lady Runcie’s estate during the Second World War, collecting cones to counteract seed shortages arising from the War. Calum and Neil feel unwelcome on the estate, watched over by the groundskeeper, Duror, who seems to develop an unhealthy obsession with them, seeing Calum as some malignant presence due to his disability.

The War is always lingering in the background of everyone’s thoughts – Neil feeling guilty that he is not fighting; Lady Runcie’s brother away fighting in the War; Duror resenting that he was turned down for service; and the conscientious objectors working in the town who are shunned by the locals.

I loved Roderick, the little boy on the estate. He is so innocent and often contradicts his mother when he senses that she is being unjust or inconsistent. His mother describes him as ‘too quixotic for words’ when he suggests that the Calum and Neil are more important than dogs and should be allowed to ride back to the estate in the family car. Lady Runcie Campbell has been taught throughout her life to maintain ‘the correct degree of condescension’ and I think this is why she finds Roderick’s sense of justice so unsettling as it is improper to feel pity for people that she considers to be of a lower social status than she.

Roderick also understands that Duror is unfairly prejudiced against the cone gatherers and remarks upon it but Duror belittles the child’s perceptiveness and ‘smiled at the rawness of the boy who still saw evil as dwelling only in certain men and women, and not as a presence like air, infecting everyone’. The notion of good and evil is present throughout the novel and I feel like my review of the book just can’t do all of the themes justice. The ending of the book is like a blow to the chest, the action rising into a crescendo that leaves you certain that things could never end well and leaves you wondering what this means for humanity.

I found it to be reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a comparison which a google search reveals as unsurprisingly frequent. The themes of innocence and how the innocent are often made to pay for the mistakes and ignorance of others run through both, and I would claim that one novel is just as powerful as the other. A nice pair of books to read together, I think!

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Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Publisher: Myrmidon
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978 1 78211 017 0
Published: 2012
No. of Pages: 348
Price: £6.99

SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng came as a breath of fresh air. I feel like my mind had been clouded, over-populated by reading submissions at work, many of which just could not hold my attention. And then I started to read this, the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted second novel of Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng…

The prose is beautiful from the first page until the last, sweeping the reader up into the Cameron Highlands, an area of Malaysia (known as Malaya in the time the novel is set) filled with tea plantations and forbidding jungle. Teoh Yun Ling, a recently retired judge, returns to Yugiri, the garden owned and crafted by the former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, Nakamura Aritomo. During the Second World War, and the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Yun Ling had been captured by the Japanese and held in a labour camp along with her sister Yun Hong. Yun Hong does not survive, and her memory and the love that she had for Japanese gardens drives Yun Ling to Yugiri, as she wants Aritomo to design a garden in honour of her sister. The book flashes back and forth between the present day and the past, Yun Ling’s return to Yugiri, and the first time she was there and how she became Aritomo’s apprentice.

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Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Publisher: Vintage Books
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-099-48878-1
Published: 2007 [2006]
No. of Pages: 403
Price: £7.99

This is such an interesting account of the Nazi Occupation in France, and given its back story it becomes all the more poignant. Irène Némirovsky was a Russian émigrée of Jewish descent who spent most of her life in France and was in her lifetime a published author. The manuscript for Suite Française was kept by her daughter after Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz, unread, for 50 years before its publication in 2004.

The novel is really two, split into the first volume Storm in June, which chronicles the accounts of Parisians fleeing Paris for the country side; and Dolce which describes the first few months of the German Occupation in a small town outside of Paris. Although linked by characters and theme, the two volumes could be read separately and although I loved the depictions of the characters in the first volume, I found the second much more compelling.

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