Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

9781473618701 (2)This is a truly wonderful novel that captures the outbreak of the Second World War in London which will hook you from the opening line:  “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. We follow Mary North, who from the war’s outset, is determined to use this tumultuous time to change the status quo. Mary is from a well to do family and rather than rest on her family name she wants to get involved in the war effort. She signs up immediately with dreams of becoming a spy or being involved in the newly forming war machine. Instead she is assigned as a school teacher and sent off to prepare the school children of London for evacuation. Mary takes this all in her stride and is even more determined to throw herself wholeheartedly into her new vocation.

Through Mary we meet Tom whose job it is to organise the schooling of those not evacuated. We also meet Tom’s roommate Alistair, an art restorer at the Tate, who also signs up immediately and is sent to France. Through Tom and Alistair we explore another side of the war; the guilt of those who stay behind and the transformation of those from civilian to soldier. After surviving the disaster at Dunkirk Alistair is transferred to Malta, where like those in London, he must survive the endless siege from the air of the Germans.

Cleave expertly captures the early days of the war with everybody disbelieving it can possibly be as bad as the government is trying to prepare them for. When the blitz does begin, much to everyone’s shock and sincere disappointment, he skillfully portrays the change of mood and stiff upper lip attitude employed by Londoners to get by. He contrasts all this with Alistair’s experience of the war showing that despite the contrasts between the Homefront and the frontlines there are also many similarities. Survival and sanity the key ones in both. As the war progresses Cleave conveys the steadfastness of this demeanour, both in London and in Malta, despite everything that happens to the contrary.

This is a truly amazing novel that left me shattered at many different moments. I haven’t read such an original take on the Second World War like this since Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, and those were both streets ahead of any other novel of the last ten to fifteen years. Cleave captures the spirit of a people so subtly and honestly and how that spirit is harnessed in order to survive. The sense of humour in the book is pitch perfect; dark, sardonic, self-deprecating, infused with camaraderie. At the same time Cleave also shows the darker side of human behaviour.

There are not enough superlatives to describe how brilliant this novel is.

Buy the book here…

Review: Ardennes 1944 by Antony Beevor

9780670918645Antony Beevor’s latest book completes his histories of the Eastern and Western Fronts of the Second World War. Beginning with the award winning Stalingrad then Berlin and concluding with D-Day and now Ardennes, Beevor takes his comprehensive eye for detail to Hitler’s last ditch gamble of the war in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge.

I was really interested to read Beevor’s take of this battle having previously only read American accounts of specific engagements of the conflict, most notably Bastogne in Band of Brothers and The Hurtgen Forest, which directly preceded the German offensive. Beevor begins with Hurtgen Forest where American troops literally marched from the streets of Paris into what became know as “the meat-grinder” as a combination of over-the-top optimism about finishing the war before Christmas and new “green” troops resulted in massive casualties as the Allies met German forces on home soil for the first time. (If you are a fan of Band of Brothers then the HBO film When Trumpets Fade, which preceded it by three years, is worth seeing). Troops from The Hurtgen Forest were then redeployed  to the “quieter” area of The Ardennes just as Hitler launched his last offensive of the war.

Antony Beevor shows how the Allies were literally taken by surprise, not just by the offensive but also it size and scope. This was Hitler’s last throw of the dice and his plan was dependent on surprise but also a slow Allied reaction. Beevor shows, through extensive research, how the Allies’ ability to react quickly to the offensive was what won the battle. And although the Germans made great advances, inflicted massive casualties and cause wide spread panic, through infiltrations behind American lines, the quick response from Allied High Command meant reinforcements were deployed in time, supplies withdrawn before the Germans were able to capture them and key cross road towns defended in spite of encirclement. Even without air superiority, thanks to terrible winter conditions, the Allies were able to hold the Offensive back in time for supplies to be brought in and for support to breakthrough from the south.

As with Beevor’s previous books he also shows the full cost to the civilian population inside the battle zones. He also shows how the Battle of the Bulge was the closest the Allies came to the ferocity of the Eastern Front as they came up against veterans of those harsh campaigns. A series of prisoner atrocities on both sides also led to some of the most vicious fighting of the Western Front. Then there was the battle of the egos as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and Montgomery (promoted to Field Marshall) all fought for control and press coverage, almost jeopardising the campaign in some instances. But nothing on the scale of what occurred on the German side as Hitler’s fully delusional command tried for one last push to salvage Germany from inevitable and total defeat.

Antony Beevor delivers a fascinating account of the decisive battle of the Western Front.

Buy the book here…

Review: A God In Ruins by Kate Akinson

9780385618717My first impulse after starting this book was that I had to go back and read Life After Life again. Kate Atkinson has written an extraordinary companion novel to her previous masterpiece returning us to the world of the Todd family and Fox Corner. This time to tell us Ursula’s brother Teddy’s story.

Life After Life detailed the multiple lives of Ursula Todd before, during and after the Second World War. It was dazzling original, wildly imaginative and brilliantly inventive and was an absolute masterpiece of storytelling and writing. I was in awe of the book and am in greater awe as she takes her writing to another level in telling the companion story.

Unlike with Ursula this time Kate Atkinson tells us one life. One rich, long, detailed life. But that does not mean it is any less original, imaginative or inventive as its previous companion. The narrative is far from linear bouncing from Teddy’s experiences as a bomber pilot, to his life as an old man, to before the war and everything in between. We meet Teddy’s daughter and grandchildren long before we learn of his life and relationship with their mother. And with each piece of Teddy’s life that we gather we slowly form his whole, how events have shaped him and how he has shaped events including the choices he makes, the mistakes and the consequences.

In telling Teddy’s story in the order she does Atkinson again fleshes her characters out in a unique and inventive manner which challenges our initial judgements and forces us to make corrections. She has also written a brilliant war novel that not only vividly captures what it was like to fly on bombing raid after bombing raid over Germany in the Second World War but explores the aftereffects of war that stretches well into a new century through two more generations.

Kate Atkinson has written a novel that fits perfectly with her previous one. Each novel can be enjoyed on their own or together and read in any order. I can’t wait to go back and revisit Ursula’s lives with this new layer to enrich it. I was in awe of Kate Atkinson after Life After Life and am further dazzled by the follow-up. A writer truly at the height of her powers and what a pleasure it is to enjoy.

Buy the book here…

Top 10 War Novels: A Response

You might have seen the great post by Jon Page entitled My Top 10 War Novels. Like most people I was entertained and added more books to my ever growing ‘to be read’ list. I was also thinking about all the great war novels that were missed; in fact I made a mental list of my favourite war novels and we share no books in common. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers just missed my top 10 but that was the closest common book I found. What I enjoy about war novels is exploring the human connection, the struggle with the horrors of war and its aftermath. So I thought as a response to Jon Page’s post here are some great war novels that were missed.

10. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone dog soldiers

This cult novel seems to capture a unique mood of Americans during the Vietnam War. This book deals with some different themes, not just the war and its effect on America, but it takes a look at counter culture, drug trafficking and the corruptibility of authority.

the narrow road to the deep north9. Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I feel an Australian perspective is needed on the list and Flanagan offered a great option last year. This book focuses on not just the cruelty of war and its after effects but the impossibility of love, especially when so damaged.

8. Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding painter of silence

This novel looks at Post World War II Romania under the brutal Stalinist regime. This looks at the devastation war had on Romania, providing not only hopelessness and despair but also great beauty. This is a novel that feels like a piece of art and yet it still managed to capture the mental and physical burdens of the characters living in this post-war town.

Maus7. Maus by Art Spiegelman 

This graphic novel tells the story of a Jewish family living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. This offers a unique perspective of a type of story that has been told time and time again. Maus is also the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

People of Forever are not Afraid6. People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu 

This is the story of three normal Israeli girls who go from passing notes in school, talking about boys to turning eighteen and being conscripted into the army. For the most, this book is about a perpetual state of war.  The conflict between Israel and Lebanon still puts them into real danger, it is here we explore the idea of self-discovery when they are thrown into such an extreme situation.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk5. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 

This entire book really showed the disconnection between the military and civil life in the modern day. American wants revenge for 9/11 but they are not willing to sacrifice some like a Thanksgiving football game for it. This is a powerful book in the same vain as Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Constellation of Vital Phenomena4. Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 

Chechnya is in a fragile state due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) followed by the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split (1992). This novel takes place during the second Chechen War. This is a beautiful novel of human connection and the struggles found in an abused country. This was one of the best novels of 2013 (for me anyway).

catch 223. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

This satirical masterpiece is a novel I’ll never forget; it was surprisingly funny but also remained insightful. This novel talks about the mental suffering caused from war but also the absurdity that can be found in bureaucratic operation and reasoning.

war and peace2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 

This Russian classic depicts the French invasion of Russia in 1812. True to Tolstoy form, War and Peace also looks at classes and the impact of the Napoleonic invasion on the Tsarist society. One of the things I love about Tolstoy’s writing is the way he looks at a situation as a whole; he had a unique ability to capture the lives of everyone involved in one war.

slaughterhouse-five1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This story just has so many layers to try to explain, but it makes for an interesting read. Billy keeps randomly traveling to the Past, Future and a planet called Tralfamadore; this may seem weird but this classic really captures the effects of war on its survivors and the mental scaring it causes.

My Top 10 War Novels

There has been a resurgence in war novels in recent years as veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq return from the conflict and begin to try and make sense of what they have experienced and what the future holds for themselves. I am a huge fan of war fiction. Fiction about war I find is so much more powerful than non fiction. Non fiction is limited by facts and hindsight. In the case of biography it is limited to one point of view (which is also often the case with some history books). Fiction however has no such limits. Fiction can go inside the heads of people, in can give us both sides of the conflict, in can be in the ‘here and now’ or it can be reflective and it can trigger an emotional response rarely found in non fiction. 2014 has delivered another two wonderful books about what it is like to go to war, Redeployment by Phil Klay and Fives And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, so I thought I would list my Top 10:

10. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden9780143037071

Just pipping Birdsong this fantastic novel is about two Native Canadian friends who are  both expert sharpshooters and, using the field craft they learned hunting in the forests of Hudson Bay, quickly become accomplished snipers on the Western Front. However the horrors of the war will not only test their courage and sanity but also their friendship.

97814088544579. Five And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

War is never one-sided. It is all-encompassing and personally harrowing. Pitre has captured this aspect of war with compassion, complexity and clarity. It maybe a cliche to say that this is an important book about war that we should all read but it is only a cliche because it is true. We can’t understand a war until we have seen all its sides and Michael Pitre’s powerful debut novel is the first to explorer the pain and destruction wreaked on both sides of this long and different war.

8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien9780006543947

The way Tim O’Brien blends fact and fiction, short stories and a long narrative is breathtaking in its scope and emotional resonance. There is a reason why this is considered an absolute classic.

7. Fields Of Fire by James Webb

9780553583854Webb presents the war in all its twisted glory and shame but without breaking the bond the reader quickly develops with the lead characters. You are immersed in the jungle and its claustrophobia, the monotony and futility of life as a soldier and the fear and insanity of being in combat.

6. Regeneration by Pat Barker

9780241969144Easily the finest novel about the First World War. Barker’s novel is set in Scotland and explorers the effects of shell-shock and the experimental means of treating it. Featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen this a powerful psychological portrait of the effects of war and what it takes to return to the frontlines.

5. City of Thieves by David Benioff

9780340977392Captures the absurdity of war perfectly. Set during the Nazis’ siege ofLeningrad the futility of war is explored through an absurd life or death mission. In a city that has been cut off from the outside world, a 17-year-old boy and a Red Army deserter, must survive the starving, shell-ravaged city and the dangerous, lawless countryside in search of a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a Russian Colonel’s daughter.

4. Redeployment by Phil Klay

9780857864239This collection of short stories is unlike anything you have read before. Each story examines a different part of the decade long war in Iraq. From coming home to staying behind, from soldiers to civilians and all the chaos that war can cause.

3. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Which sounds odd for a novel about war but Kevin Powers is able to evocatively 9781444756142capture not only what is happening to the physical landscape of the novel but also the mental landscape. I have never read a book that captures the disintegration of humanity but also the power of humanity quite like The Yellow Birds.

2. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

This isn’t a war novel about heroes. It is not a war novel about politics. Although both are factors throughout the s9781848874961tory. This is not about why America was in Vietnam, because the characters in the story didn’t get a choice in the matter. This is about men and boys who experience something that changes them forever and it is about societies that will change forever. It is about war, but the biggest battles are those that the men of Bravo Company have to fight with each other and themselves

1. The Thin Red Line by James Jones

I have not read another book that comes close to the raw emotion displayed in this novel. The vast 9780141393247array of characters, from PFCs to Colonels, gave a unique insight into the life and experience not only of an individual soldier but an army company as a whole. Charlie Company was a character in the book and the ridge they had to take was a ‘dancing elephant’ that was alive and violent.

What are your favourite war novels?

Conveys the immensity and horror of a truly total world war

9780753828243

Review – The Second World War by Antony Beevor

There have been so many books written about the Second World War, as whole and it its parts. For a war that finished almost 70 years ago there is not a lot of new material to be found or analysis to give. Andrew Roberts did it in The Storm of War and Antony Beevor has managed to do it in his books on specific battles of the war (CreteStalingradBerlin and D-Day). So I was very interested see how Beevor wrote about the whole war and what new material and perspectives he brought. I was also looking forward to Beevor’s perspectives on the Pacific War.

When I first became interested in the Second World War Stalingrad was one of the first books I discovered and read. The things I have really loved about all his books, and in particular Stalingrad, have been how he has taken a single battle and shown all its contexts. Beevor has written about an entire war before, The Spanish Civil War (twice in fact) but the scale of the Second World War is immense to say the least. There was no way an 800+ page book was going to cover the whole war in the detail we’ve come to expect from Antony Beevor so there was always going to be parts of the war either not covered or expanded upon as much as some readers would like. For example Kokoda doesn’t even rate a mention and the Papua New Guinea Campaign only gets a paragraph. But while Kokoda and Papua New Guinea are important to Australia’s context of the Second World War it is not as important to the whole war’s context.

However Beevor does heavily favour the European theatre, in particular the Eastern Front, which is understandable because that is where he has done most of his research and it is also where most the death and destruction occurred in the Second Wold War. But he also looks at the Allies in the west which he has only looked at previously with D-Day and Crete. You can almost see a new book by Beevor on the Desert War and I am pretty sure he has said the The Battle of the Bulge is his next book. He covers both in depth but also gives you the impression he could have expanded greatly upon both these battles.

While I felt that the Pacific War didn’t get the coverage I wanted he does cover China during the war in great detail. Previously I had only read about China in the context of the Japanese invasion pre-1939 but Beevor covers China all the way through the war which I found fascinating.

I also found the political manoeuvrings of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin immensely intriguing. Long before the tide started to turn in the war these three were already trying to out fox one another to get what they wanted post-War. Both Churchill and Roosevelt thought they had Stalin’s measure but he played them both off against each other both subtlety and crudely.

Writing about the whole of The Second World War is an ambitious task for any writer or historian. Beevor uses all of his skill to convey the immensity and horror of a truly total world war. Beevor fans will be well satisified and I think this is a great book for those who haven’t read him before to cut their teeth. And judging from the research that has gone into this book I can see at least three new books coming down the line.

Buy the book here…