The First Casualty

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As I am teaching a play set during the First World War I thought now was as good a time as any to do some reading of other WW1 books and Ben Elton’s The First Casualty is one that I have recently seen reviewed and was recommended to me as well. It is June 1917 and, whilst being treated for shell shock in a hospital not far from the Front, Viscount Abercrombie is shot and killed. Abercrombie is a celebrated pro war poet and so his murder could be viewed as an attack on the war, so it is reported as a death in the line of duty. Meanwhile in England, Police Inspector Douglas Kingsley is sent to prison for refusing to fight in a war he sees no logical reason for. Prison is an unforgiving place for a conscientious objector, especially one who used to be in the police force, so he is certainly in for a tough time, providing he stays alive long enough to serve his sentence. Luckily, Kingsley is just the man the Government need to investigate a murder that nobody is supposed to know about and if he solves it he knows he can disappear into obscurity. Kingsley, under an alias, is sent to the Front, the one place he didn’t want to be, and experiences the war and all its devastation first hand.

I love books about WW1 and I say this every time I blog about a book set or written during this era. The a First Casualty is no exception. The descriptions of war and life in the trenches are vivid and truly tragic. I think Elton has created a believable perception of the war and how difficult and fraught life at the Front had become once the initial gun hoe glamour of war had worn off. There were various different social perspectives captured in this novel; the Suffragette who has been liberated to a certain extent because of the war; the Bolsheviks who are fighting in a war they don’t believe in; the conscientious objector who sees no logic to such a pointless war and the disillusioned poet who no longer believes in the war he so public ally supported. I felt the characters were like a microcosm of society’s views and even if their viewpoint wasn’t fully explored or they only appeared on a page or two it was interesting to have a snapshot of various beliefs and events that were happening outside of the battlefields.

The First Casualty is an historical crime novel and yes there was a crime to solve, but I don’t feel this took much precedent when I was reading it. The main plot from my perspective was Kingsley discovery of the reality of war and how being in such an intense situation can make a man do things he never thought he would. It was a good murder plot and I did the usual ‘who dunnit’ guessing game, but I wasn’t as interested in that part of the narrative. I think my favourite thread surrounded Nurse Murray, who was a fierce feminist and Suffragette who was subjected to ‘the cat and mouse’ treatment of dealing with Suffragettes who used more aggressive forms of protest. I haven’t read much about the Suffragettes but I found it an engaging part of the narrative and it has made me eager to seek out fiction and possibly non fiction based on the Suffragette Movement. I particularly liked how ‘modern’ she was in her attitude towards sex and the relationships she had with men; I find it almost bizarre that I never really thought about women having a casual approach to such things one hundred years ago, but then again they much have.

On the whole I would recommend The First Casualty. I don’t think it was as amazing as my colleague said, however it was enjoyable and has made me eager to take my reading in a different direction so what more could I ask from a novel.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Tracy Chevalier’s novel takes its title from a painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and it is this painting that forms the focal point of the novel, or rather the process of creating this painting that Chevalier centres on. Griet is a sixteen year old who leaves her family home and goes to work as a maid for the Vermeers. At first she shows little enjoyment for her new life, apart from the time she spends cleaning her master’s studio. Soon she is mixing the paint and catching the eye of her master’s benefactor, which ultimately leads to her portrait being painted.

Before I started reading Girl with a Pearl Earring I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about picking it up. As is the way with my last few reads I have just randomly picked it up and I am pleased to say I enjoyed it rather more than I was expecting. The novel is told from Griet’s perspective as she leaves her family, who have been driven to poverty by her father’s accident in a tiling factory, and takes on the responsibility of providing for those left at home. Her narrative is easy to follow and engaging and you are quickly swept up in life in the seventeenth century Netherlands and Griet’s everyday life with the Vermeer family, from washing laundry to running errands, from trips to visit her family to a growing relationship with the son of a local butcher. It could be seen as a mundane and normal existence if it want for her relationship with her master, Vermeer.

Vermeer’s benefactor, a lecherous old man, wants a painting with Griet. This sparks jealousy from her master who refuses, leading to him painting a solo portrait. It is clear throughout that Griet is in awe of her master and tenses at his every touch. It is almost sweet reading about her ‘crush’ on Vermeer, perhaps reminiscent of every teenage girls’ crush on some slightly more grown up and glamorous figure in their life. Vermeer’s jealousy of his benefactor leads the reader to suspect something might actually happen between him and Griet, right until the end I was convinced something would. The tension between the two hinted at some romance. His insistence that she be painted alone, the way he protected her against his family all led to this outcome. But I underestimated the ego of an artist. As soon as Vermeer had what he wanted, he was gone. Only what he wanted wasn’t necessarily what I expected.

This is a tale of jealousy, from all sides and all characters, envy and the nature of relationships. I had no idea what this novel would be about, especially as my copy only has critic’s praise, and not a blurb, on the back, but I am glad that it was a narrative I could engage with and enjoy. Griet is a likeable, albeit naive, girl who is caught up with the differences between her new life and her former one and you can’t help but emphasise with her plight and realise how awful life might have been for some maids, especially if their mistress took against them. I can’t say it has been one of my favourite reads of the year, but it is a good read and a lovely easy one for my return to school.

Challenges

TBR Pile 2014

Reading the Twentieth Century

TBR Reading Pile Update

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Unless my maths is wrong, and to be fair it probably is, I believe we are three quarters of the way through this year and that means I have three months left for my TBR Reading Pile. I haven’t written an update post for a couple of months so I wanted a chance to reflect and remind myself of how far I am in this challenge. I am already eager to partake in a TBR reading challenge for 2015 and thinking about some of the books I might want to include on the list, but first I need to ensure I complete my reading for this year.

I have been really pleased with how well I am doing with this challenge and how I have continued to tick along with it and picked up the books on the list even if I have been a little unsure about reading them. So far I have read 10 books from my original list of 13 and I am aiming to read 12; if I manage 13 I will be super impressed, but 12 is my goal. I have ticked the following books off my list:

Patience by John Coates
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
World Without End by Ken Follett
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
Girl with a Pearl by Tracy Chevalier – which I have yet to review.

I finished reading Girl with a Pearl Earring yesterday so I will review it soon. It is difficult to choose which book I have enjoyed the most from the list of ones I have read, however I know my least favourite so far has been The Stranger’s Child as I failed to finish this and it is very rare I put a book down before I have completed it.

I feel confident that I will complete my TBR Pile for the year and have certainly enjoyed the challenge so far, especially the lack of pressure tied to it. I don’t feel guilty if I miss a book one month or if I don’t post regular updates which is the kind of challenge I like. Fingers crossed I achieve my reading goal.

Ian Fleming

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I don’t read much non fiction and I certainly don’t read many biographies, she says having read one about Henry VIII’s wives over the summer, so I’m not sure why I randomly picked up Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming on a recent trip to the library. I can’t even claim it is a book I have wanted to read for ages, as I hadn’t seen it before that library visit and I can’t claim to be a huge Fleming fan, having only read Dr No. I have seen most Bond films and I did want to be a Bond girl when I was younger, but that is about it. Oh and we used to love playing Goldeneye on the N64 as I was growing up, but that hardly makes me the biggest fan in the world. So yes this was certainly a random and unexpected read.

It is very rare that I check a book out of the library and start reading it straight away but I did with Ian Fleming. It was just such an interesting read. Having lost his father in the First World War, Fleming was brought up largely by his exotic sounding mother, a woman who was quite domineering and certainly led a book worthy life herself, turning up one day with a baby she ‘adopted’ in tow. For most of his childhood and early adulthood Fleming felt overshadowed by his older brother, Peter and certainly rebelled against this and seemed to spend a lot of time flitting from place to place not really settling to one thing. He worked as a journalist before the outbreak of war in 1939 and was pretty successful with this, but it was the Second a World War that seems to have made him, playing a key role in Intelligence. After the war Fleming continued working as a journalist, before buying Goldeneye, his home in Jamaicia, where he would aim to churn out a new Bond book every year.

Due to school I feel as though it has been a while since I actually read this book, so almost like I can’t remember what happened and I think the fact I started another book at the same time didn’t help. One of the most prominent narrative threads in the biography centred on Fleming’s love life and in particular his relationship with Ann, the mistress he eventually married decades after their relationship started. She had at least two husbands during the course of their relationship and even after marriage neither could stay faithful and in Ann’s case she appears tortured by Ian’s relationships with other women. Much has been said about Fleming’s sadistic approach to sex and controlling women however this biography didn’t dwell on this aspect of Fleming’s life, but it was certainly clear that Fleming had little respect or time for women, arguably an attitude he propelled onto his hero, Bond.

The creation of Bond was really fascinating and I loved exploring how Fleming took inspiration from his travels, his war work and the stories he was told by friends. Whilst I liked reading about this it did make me a little sad about how boring my life is in comparison. Maybe because I’m not as glamorous as Fleming, or I live in a world where social media and technology has taken over so we don’t have much mystery or romance and certainly nowhere near as much as the world Fleming inhabited. I love the mystery surrounding travelling and exploring countries you had previously known little about.

I feel this is a bit of a crap review as I can’t remember much of the book in detail, I just know that I enjoyed it and I would like to try and read more biographies. As I was writing this review I also remembered that I really want to watch the show about Ian Fleming starring Dominic Cooper so maybe that had something to do with my picking the book up in the first place.

Challenges

Reading the Twentieth Century