The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

This wonderful story of a young woman with a passion for aviation is the first book I’ve read by Rebecca Mascull, but I enjoyed it so much I will certainly be going back to read her previous two novels. Set in the Lincolnshire town of Cleethorpes in the first two decades of the 20th century, The Wild Air is both fascinating and inspirational, with a heroine I loved and connected with immediately.

Her name is Cordelia Dobbs – Della for short – and her interest in flying begins at the age of fourteen when her Great Aunt Betty comes home from America, where she has lived for the last twenty years. Della is a quiet girl who often feels overshadowed by her more attractive and talented siblings, but things begin to change with Betty’s arrival. As the sister of a railway engineer, during her time in North Carolina Betty has been paying special attention to all the latest developments in engineering and flight and has even had the opportunity to see the planes produced by the famous Wright brothers.

Seeing that she has a kindred spirit in Della, Betty takes the girl under her wing (pun intended) and together they take part in kite-flying sessions on the beach while making plans to design their own flying machine one day. Despite the disapproval of her father, Della is determined to turn her hobby into a career and become an aviatrix – a female pilot. It isn’t easy – on approaching a flying instructor to ask for lessons, Della is told that ‘the air is not the place for a woman’ – but now that her mind is made up, she will stop at nothing to achieve her ambition.

I don’t personally share the characters’ love of aviation, but their enthusiasm – and the author’s – shines through on every page. Even though the descriptions of Della’s flights and the technical details of planes and flying didn’t always interest me, I could tell that they fascinated Della and that was all that mattered. I could also appreciate how much research Rebecca Mascull must have carried out to be able to write so convincingly about the subject. She brings each scene to life so well: visiting the Blackburn School of Flying on the beach at Filey, an air show Della attends with Auntie Betty – and her first flight as a passenger with the Belgian aviatrix Hélène Dutrieu, going through the full range of emotions from fear to wonder during this amazing experience. I know I would never have been brave enough to do what Della did; bearing in mind how new aeroplanes were at that time, how unreliable they could be, and that accidents – often fatal – did happen, I’m sure I would have been terrified to go up alone in one. We owe so much to these early pioneers of aviation who were prepared to take risks and try something new.

I wondered at first whether Della was a real person, but I quickly discovered that she wasn’t. However, I didn’t mind at all that I was reading about a fictional aviator rather than a real one; it allowed the author to take the story in different directions and develop personal storylines and relationships for Della without worrying about sticking to biographical facts. I loved the relationship that forms between Della and Auntie Betty as this quiet, reserved girl finds someone with whom she shares a bond and something she can put her heart and soul into. One of the most interesting relationships, though, is the one Della has with her father, Pop, a former actor who has been left angry and bitter after an injury brought his theatrical career to an end. Della feels that Pop has never shown her any love or encouragement and as the story progressed I kept hoping that the two of them would find a way to understand and accept each other.

In the second half of the book, World War I dominates as several of Della’s loved ones go off to fight and Della herself searches for ways in which she can play a part. Towards the end of the war, things take a dramatic turn and, without going into details and spoiling the story, this was the only part of the novel that I thought stretched the imagination a bit too far…until I decided that actually it was consistent with Della’s personality and just the sort of thing she would try to do. If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book – and now I really must read The Visitors and Song of the Sea Maid sooner rather than later!

This post is part of a blog tour for The Wild Air. For more reviews and features, please see the tour schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review via NetGalley.

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Absolutist by John Boyne

the-absolutist It’s 1919 and twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler is home from the war. He knows he is lucky to have survived when so many like him didn’t – people like his friend and fellow soldier, Will Bancroft. John Boyne’s The Absolutist follows the stories of Tristan and Will, two very different men with very different attitudes towards life, death, love and war.

As the novel opens, Tristan is taking a train from London to Norwich where he plans to visit Will’s sister, Marian, and return the letters she sent to Will during the war. This is not the only reason for his visit, however – he has been carrying a terrible secret and is hoping to unburden himself to Marian so that they can both move on and face the future.

Through a series of long flashbacks, we witness Tristan’s first meeting with Will during their training at Aldershot in 1916 and then watch their relationship develop as they are sent to France and endure the horrors of life in the trenches. This story unfolds alongside the ‘present day’ storyline set in 1919, with Tristan’s big secret kept concealed until near the end of the book, allowing suspense and tension to build throughout the novel. There’s already plenty of tension anyway, of course, because this is a novel which doesn’t shy away from describing the horror and the uncertainty of war and although we know from the start that Tristan survives and Will doesn’t, we don’t know exactly how Will’s life ended or what the fate of the other characters in the story might be.

I’ve read several of John Boyne’s other novels (and particularly loved This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) so I started this one with high hopes. I thought it was a fascinating and moving read which I enjoyed almost – but not quite – as much as the three I’ve just mentioned. The period leading up to, during and just after the First World War is one that I always like to read about and this novel covers many different aspects of the war and its aftermath. What I found particularly interesting was the exploration of what it meant to be a ‘conscientious objector’ or an ‘absolutist’ during the war, how they were treated by the other soldiers and how they were viewed by the public. The difference between the two is that conscientious objectors, despite refusing to fight, would often agree to fill other roles, such as stretcher bearers, but absolutists were unwilling to have any involvement at all.

The one thing that spoils The Absolutist, in my opinion, is some of the language Boyne uses, especially in the dialogue, which doesn’t feel appropriate to the time period. Other reviews of this book have mentioned inaccuracies regarding the military terminology too, although I would never notice things like that myself. It’s a shame, considering the care and attention to detail Boyne has obviously put into his recreations of life in the trenches and his treatment of other important issues of the period such as women’s suffrage and attitudes towards homosexuality. Still, I had no major problems with this novel and found it a powerful and thought-provoking read. I still have plenty of John Boyne’s earlier books left to explore and am looking forward to his new one, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, coming in 2017.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War Six years after her debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson is back with a second novel – and, in my opinion, it has definitely been worth the wait! The Summer Before the War is a beautiful, moving story about a small town in East Sussex and how it is transformed forever by the effects of the First World War.

It’s the summer of 1914 and spinster Beatrice Nash is arriving in the town of Rye to take up a position as Latin teacher at the local grammar school. Despite the support of Agatha Kent, one of the school governors, Beatrice quickly discovers that not everyone is happy with the decision to offer the teaching job to a woman and that she could be about to lose her position before she’s even begun.

Also in Rye for the summer are Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel, two young men who think they know what the future holds: Hugh expects to complete his medical studies and then marry Lucy Ramsey, daughter of the surgeon he has been working for, while Daniel, an aspiring poet, hopes to go to Paris and start a literary journal with his friend, Craigmore. With the onset of war, however, all of these plans will be thrown into disarray and life in Rye will never be the same again.

Towards the end of the novel, the action switches to France where we join the men in the trenches, but most of the book, as the title suggests, is devoted to those lazy, idyllic summer days and the changes that are brought by the approach of war. The rigid social structure in place at the beginning of the summer – a time in which independence in women such as Beatrice is seen as something to be discouraged, the atrocities experienced by a young refugee girl make her a social outcast, and Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore risks causing scandal – begins to break down as the war progresses and priorities change.

The Summer Before the War is a long book (with a lovely, cheerful and sunny front cover) but I enjoyed every minute I spent with this set of characters. The story is told with humour, intelligence and sensitivity – and some witty, Jane Austen-style dialogue. Occasionally a word or phrase feels out of place, but otherwise the atmosphere of that summer of 1914 is perfectly evoked. Although the pace is quite gentle I was completely absorbed, discovering as I reached the final chapters how much I had come to care for the men on the front line and the women left behind.

This is a warm, emotional and poignant story and I was close to tears at the end. I loved it and look forward to more from Helen Simonson.

Thanks to Lovereading for providing a review copy.

Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay

Non-Combatants and Others Rose Macaulay is an author I’ve been interested in trying for a while (since reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram, which is set in Trebizond, and discovering that Macaulay had written a book called The Towers of Trebizond). I don’t have a copy of the Trebizond book, though, and do have a copy of Non-Combatants and Others, so it made sense to start with this one.

Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916, is set during the First World War and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of ‘non-combatants’ and other people who didn’t or couldn’t take an active part in the war. Our heroine, twenty-five-year-old art student Alix Sandomir, is the daughter of a Polish activist father who died in a Russian prison and an English mother, Daphne, who is a pacifist. As the novel opens, Daphne has gone to New York to promote peace, while Alix has remained in England, staying with family in the countryside.

At first Alix may seem to be a rather selfish character. She takes no interest in politics or in helping the war effort; unlike her aunt and cousins, she refuses to get involved in volunteering, nursing, driving ambulances, helping refugees or knitting for the soldiers. Instead she buries herself in her drawing, and at the first opportunity she goes to London to lodge with another set of cousins while she continues her studies at art school. She finds her new companions easier to live with, as they, like herself, are doing their best to ignore the fact that the country is at war.

We soon find, though, that this is just Alix’s way of trying to cope. Her health is not good – she walks with a limp following a childhood illness, and she has a very sensitive, nervous disposition which means she has trouble handling stressful situations. She is also worried about her younger brother, Paul, and the man she loves, Basil Doye, who are both fighting on the front line. Although Alix would love to be able to help in some way, she is frustrated by her own uselessness and decides that the solution to this is simply not to think about it. It is only when she learns the truth about Paul’s experiences in the trenches that she finally has to face up to reality – and when her mother returns from her latest conference, Alix must decide whether she too should join the battle for peace.

Non-Combatants and Others is an unusual novel but a very interesting one. I think what fascinated me the most about it was that it was published in 1916! With hindsight, we know that in 1916 the war would continue for another two years; when Rose Macaulay wrote this book she had no idea how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be. The novel is only two hundred pages long but manages to touch on a wide range of issues which affected those involved – or not involved – in the war: the role of women, the work of the VAD nurses (there’s a very moving chapter set during a visit to a London hospital), the reintegration of wounded ex-soldiers back into society, and the effects of shell shock.

I read an edition of this book published by Capuchin Classics which has a foreword by Sarah LeFanu. When I turned back to read the foreword after I finished the novel I was surprised to find that LeFanu was also discussing a short story called Miss Anstruther’s Letters as if it should have been included in the book. It seems there must have been another edition which included both Non-Combatants and Others and Miss Anstruther’s Letters, but this one does not, which was slightly disappointing. I hope I’ll have a chance to read that short story at some point in the future. I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking for historical fiction novels written by classic women authors and I have since discovered that Rose Macaulay wrote a book called They Were Defeated, set in the seventeenth century. Has anyone read it?

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every Stone When choosing what to read for this year’s #Diversiverse event, A God in Every Stone was the obvious choice as it also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (it was shortlisted for the 2015 prize). It’s the sixth novel by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, but the first one I have read.

The novel opens in July 1914 in Turkey, where twenty-two-year-old Vivian Rose Spencer is working on an archaeological dig led by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father’s. Vivian is intrigued by tales of Scylax, the ancient Greek explorer who sailed down the Indus River from the city of Caspatyrus (now Peshawar in modern-day Pakistan) and was rewarded by King Darius I with a circlet decorated with figs. As Tahsin Bey tells her of his mission to find the legendary circlet, she finds herself falling in love with him, despite the age difference. Soon, though, she and Tahsin Bey are separated; war has broken out in Europe and Vivian must return home to serve as a VAD nurse in a London hospital.

Another thread of the novel follows a young Pashtun soldier from Peshawar, Qayyum Gul, who has been injured while fighting with the British army at Ypres in 1915. Qayyum is on his way home when he briefly meets Vivian on a train. Having been traumatised by her experiences of wartime nursing, Vivian has decided to travel to Peshawar to continue Tahsin Bey’s search for the Circlet of Scylax. In Peshawar, she gets to know a twelve-year-old boy called Najeeb and awakens in him a passion for archaeology and ancient history.

The stories of these three people – Vivian, Qayyum and Najeeb – come together again fifteen years later in 1930s Peshawar. I think I’ve said enough about the plot now, so I won’t tell you how their characters have developed in the intervening years or the circumstances that lead to their paths crossing again. What I will say, though, is that 1930 is a very significant year in the history of Peshawar, as a group known as the Khudai Khidmatgar campaign to end British rule in India through non-violent means. The novel reaches a dramatic conclusion on the Street of Storytellers during one of the defining moments of the Indian independence movement – and one that I confess to knowing nothing about before reading this book.

A God in Every Stone is an ambitious book, spanning three decades, crossing two continents and tackling some big themes, such as the rise and fall of empires and the loyalties of the people living within those empires. The settings – which include Turkish archaeological sites and the old walled city of Peshawar – are vividly described and I loved the way in which the story of Scylax was worked throughout the novel, its relevance not immediately clear but soon becoming obvious.

Although I found a lot to admire about A God in Every Stone, I still felt that there was something missing: an emotional connection to the characters. I found that the only one I really cared about was Najeeb – his innocence and enthusiasm as a twelve-year-old meant he instantly became my favourite character – but I struggled to feel anything for Qayyum and Vivian, despite the ordeals they both go through. It didn’t help that towards the end of the novel they are pushed into the background as two more characters – Zarina and her sister-in-law, Diwa – are introduced. Choosing to focus on new characters at such a late stage of the book meant that the final scenes set on the Street of Storytellers lacked the impact they should have had.

I did enjoy this book but I couldn’t help feeling that the author had tried to include too much in what is really quite a short novel. I think I would have preferred a longer book giving the characters more emotional depth and exploring the themes in more detail – or maybe a shorter book concentrating on just Vivian’s story or just Qayyum’s. Looking at other reviews of this novel, it was possibly the wrong Kamila Shamsie book for me to have started with; I’m looking forward to trying one of her earlier books and I think Burnt Shadows will be the next one I read.

If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If You Go Away This is Adele Parks’ fifteenth novel but the first one I’ve read. Most of her others have contemporary settings and have never really appealed to me, but her most recent two are historical novels – Spare Brides, set in the 1920s, and this one, set during the First World War.

As the novel opens in March 1914, we meet Vivian Foster, a beautiful eighteen year old debutante who is enjoying the London season and not giving too much thought to rumours of war in Europe. Her main goal in life is to marry the rich, handsome Nathaniel Thorpe, but things don’t go according to plan and to avoid a scandal, Vivian is married off to Aubrey Owens, a man she doesn’t love. When war breaks out on their wedding day and Aubrey enlists as an officer in the army, Vivian finds herself living alone on his farm in the small village of Blackwell in Derbyshire.

The novel’s other main character is Howard Henderson, a talented and ambitious young playwright. Near the beginning of the war, Howard spends some time visiting the battlefields with a journalist friend and although he doesn’t take part in the fighting himself, he is shocked and appalled by what he witnesses. Returning to England he finds that he is under increasing pressure to enlist, but his experiences on the front line have left him convinced of the futility and barbarity of war. At a time when all fit and healthy young men are expected to go and fight for their country, Howard’s views make him very unpopular. When his path crosses with Vivian’s, a friendship begins to form and Howard must decide whether there are some things worth fighting for after all.

If You Go Away gets off to a slow start; I’m not sure that it was really necessary to spend so much time at the beginning giving us information on the backgrounds and personalities of our two main characters – I would have preferred to get to know them gradually through their words and actions. Once Vivian is in Blackwell and Howard is on his way to visit the trenches, though, the story really starts to pick up. While there is certainly a strong romantic element, this is more than just a love story – the scenes set in France and Belgium are vivid and dramatic, showing us the full horrors of war, while Vivian’s chapters also tackle other themes such as female friendships, unhappy marriages and the roles of women in society.

I disliked both Vivian and Howard at the start of the novel – particularly Vivian, who appeared to be very shallow and self-obsessed, interested only in money, clothes, parties and gossip. Fortunately, Vivian’s character does develop and change over the course of the novel and I eventually started to see another side to her. It seemed that being in the countryside away from the influence of her friends and family in London helps her to gain confidence and discover what is really important in life. As one of the village women tells her, “I do believe that one only earns the right to strong and cherished friendships once one has learnt to stand alone. You have to like yourself very much before you can expect others to”.

Through the characters of Vivian and Howard we see the changes that war brings to individuals, to communities and to the world. I have read a lot of other novels set during the Great War, but what makes this one different is that we are given the perspective of a conscientious objector. This is not an aspect of the war I’ve read about in any detail before and I found it fascinating. Because of the interesting questions and issues this novel raises, I found it a deeper and more thought-provoking read than I had expected it to be. There were one or two twists towards the end that I found difficult to believe, but I did enjoy this book and I hope Adele Parks will continue to write historical fiction as I think she does it very well.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.