A moving and wonderful book about the worlds biggest maritime tragedy

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am actually a little breathless having finished this book, it’s taken my breath away and I’m feeling that awful grief you get when you have finished a book that is really special and you know your time with the characters has come to an end. I had heard wonderful things about Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys but I really had not expected to fall in love with this book quite as hard as I did.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that it is based on fact and actual events that occurred at the end of the second world war. Being naturally inquisitive I went and found out more about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship that was transporting German military and refugees in the Baltic Sea when it was struck by torpedoes from a Russian submarine causing the loss of around 9,400 lives. This makes it the biggest maritime disaster of all time and yet I know that so few people have heard of this and now having read this story I find it even more heartbreaking.

The story is told in really short chapters. Each is only a page or two long so the story drives forward really quickly and in bursts that whilst initially giving us only snippets about our characters does help to add to the mystery about their backgrounds. We have four main characters who narrate the book, each of them has a different secret they are hiding and they are all seeking the same thing, escape from their past and a new future with the promise of reuniting with loved ones they have lost or a fresh start. As their stories intertwine we learn more about the tragedies each have faced, the difficult choices war has forced upon them and the horrors they have seen along the way.

Of our narrators 3 of the 4 are wonderful characters, the fourth is a complex and difficult one to like but his voice is equally important as he brings us the voice of the German Nazi machine as it begins to fall apart and the unhinged beliefs of the Fuhrer and how they have infiltrated the German people. We may not like him but his voice provides the context that brings the books dark undertones even more to the fore.

The stories in this book are gritty and heartbreaking. Of the Young Adult novels I’ve read about World War II this alongside The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas are probably two of the most emotional and touching. Not to say that others are not but the subject matter is difficult to read, it includes some very adult themes and doesn’t hold back during the storytelling about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

I read this book in a day, I could not put it down. Once I had understood each of the characters back stories I was rooting for them, I fell in love with the surrounding characters and the character of the Shoe Poet will remain with me for a long time to come. The quote he makes on deck of the ship just before it is hit is beautiful as he tells Florian “Just when you think this was has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realise that somehow you still have more to give” This was so poignant from an elderly man talking about the loss of his wife and how a young orphan boy gave him the strength to go on. It was such a beautiful moment in a book filled with much darkness.

It is a book I didn’t have to think about what rating it deserved, from the moment I picked it up till I finished it I was drawn in, it engaged me fully and it made me fall in love with it. Absolutely inspiring writing and I cannot wait to try more books from Ruta Sepetys.

A better than expected look at the love of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must be upfront and declare myself absolutely obsessed with Hamilton the musical, from the first time I heard it I’ve been hooked and it’s helped both me (and my children) learn so much more about the history of the United States and the key figures in its establishment. Coming from the United Kingdom this is something we do not generally cover in our education system and it’s been great to learn through a medium so engaging as the music and lyrics of this wonderful show. Of course, one of my favourite relationships in the show is that of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler and when I saw this book it immediately caught my attention.

Melissa de la Cruz has been known for writing Young Adult books for a while and previously has penned the novels that accompany the Disney Descendants franchise. For me this nearly put me off this book altogether as I wasn’t quite sure I wanted someone to take the Hamilton romance and simply translate it from stage to page and add a lot of Young Adult sugar coating on top. I didn’t want it to taint my enjoyment of the love story because it was being dumbed down for a younger audience.

You can imagine my surprise therefore when I found this novel to be written in a style that immediately pitches itself as both intelligent and informed. This is not simply someone who has seen the show and decided to further romanticise the story. Instead, there has been significant research into the Schuyler family and the relationships between Eliza and her two sisters Angelica and Peggy. There is not simply an exact copy of the chain of events portrayed in the musical but instead, this story of Alex and Eliza’s love takes us through several years where initially they didn’t find it easy to like one another and events surrounding the war threatened to see Eliza dislike Colonel Alexander Hamilton quite significantly.

In this story, we find that rather than being the meek and somewhat giddy character she can appear in the show Eliza was hugely involved in the war effort, proactive and greatly intelligent. Her two sisters are instead the more vivacious characters who found it easier to mingle in the society their station raised them to

The only disappointment I had with this book was that once we reached the Happy Ever After moment when Eliza marries Alexander the story comes to its close, now fans of the show will know that this was very much only the beginning of their story and that there is much still to tell. I had hoped a little glimpse into this and felt that I could have cheerfully kept reading for another 200 or so pages. I wanted to know about the raising of their family, their changing relationship and the challenges they faced as Alexander grew more involved in the establishment of the new United States of America.

This book was much much better than I had anticipated, I flew through it in only 2 days and I would recommend it to any fans of the musical. It’s not simply a cliched retelling but an intelligent and well-written novel which enhanced my understanding of a romance which took place against the backdrop of huge change and revolution.

I loved this book so much more than I expected…even if I did know what was going to happen next


A Game of Thrones
 (A Song of Ice & Fire #1) by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been doing really well with my good reads challenge this year, having read 49 of the 52 books I hoped to achieve over the course of 2017 and so I decided to invest some time and read one of those really big books that I’ve been putting off for a while and one that I’ve always thought of as somewhat of a challenge, Game of Thrones, the first of George R. R. Martins’ A Song of Ice And Fire series.

I have been a viewer of the HBO show for the past few years and so I wasn’t coming to the story fresh, I had a full and open awareness of exactly the story I’d be reading and so I was waiting for all the big plot points throughout and there were no surprises in store. The only surprise I found was that whilst I’d expected quite a wordy and highly overwritten book I found instead one that was much more accessible than I’d expected and written in a style that would lend itself to a variety of readers and not just those who enjoy high fantasy tales alone.

I had anticipated that I might struggle to find the characters I’d loved within the pages, lost among long and complex descriptions of their houses allegiances and lots of background that the show had chosen to discard and instead I found that this book had some serious pace. The chapters were long but really very engaging and the action moved along at a pace that surprised me. Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective and so we hear the voices of the characters we love in turn from Eddard, Tyrion, Jon, Daenerys and Arya along with others we hold such affection for. Often when authors attempt to write from multiple points of view we sometimes lose the essence of the characters but Martin does a wonderful job and each holds their own voice and individuality and make it an exciting and gripping book to read.

There is no secret that Game of Thrones has become one of the most read books of all time since the release of HBO’s groundbreaking series and often we will find that huge fans of the show, such as myself, will never choose to delve into the written version preferring instead to follow the action on screen but it would seem that millions of fans have found joy in the written versions too and it is with that in mind that I decided to explore the books. I sought to find more than I had in the screen version, to expand my understanding of the world and background of the Seven Kingdoms and the families therein. It didn’t let me down, I loved every second of reading this book. It is a hefty book at nearly 800 pages and yet it didn’t once feel like a chore to get through. I flew through it, when I wasn’t reading it I wanted to be, not because I needed to know what happened next but just for the sheer joy of the character’s narration and the world Martin has built that I longed to be back in.

It seemed strange to be back at the start of the story again, many of the characters within have been on so many journeys since then that you almost forget where they started out. You have differing opinions about so many of them now and some have been long departed due to gruesome ends and it’s been nice to go back and relive their stories again. I for one had forgotten how much I adored Lord Eddard Stark, what a magnificent character he is and how important a part he played in starting the Game of Thrones. All the clues for what will follow are there, especially regards the huge plot reveal that was made at the end of Season 7 of the show regards Jon Snow. It makes you view him somewhat with more respect and sympathy when you understand the secret he held of his sisters.

I am quite sorry to have finished this book, thrilled to know I have so many more to go in the series and keen now to go back and review the first season of the show again. It’s been a wonderful read and this may very well be one of my favourite reads this year.

An emotional and clever tale of World War II and the women who gave their lives

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity #1) by Elizabeth Wein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are quite a few Young Adult novels based on the stories of people during the years of the Second World War. Several of these have become huge bestsellers are they are often sought out as books to be studied within the classroom such as The Book Thief and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. I’d heard really good things about Code Name Verity and as it’s been a little while since I read a Second World War book in this genre I decided it might be nice to see whether it could be a valuable read for my 11-year-old who is going to be studying this time period at school.

This is an interesting book told through the eyes of a Gestapo prisoner in Nazi occupied France. Initially, we know very little about our narrator other than she is a British prisoner, although as she reminds us frequently she is, in fact, Scottish which I found quite amusing as being Scottish myself I know the pains we will go to in order to not be regarded as English. It is clear she has given in under pressures of interrogation and is now writing down what she knows about the allied war effort, the kinds of planes we use, where our air bases are and radio codes that we use for transmitting messages. As she tells us she is a coward, she has bought herself an extra two weeks of life in order to share all the knows with the Germans but ultimately she knows she will die at the hands of her captors.

As the story progresses we find that her way of telling what she knows about the war is both humorous, insightful and written through her experiences during the war. She is often scathing about the Germans who hold her, she is telling her story her way and sometimes this leads to her being punished for the things she says. There is lots of information about flying and the aircraft used during the war but if you can cut through this fundamentally this is the story of a young pilot Maddie who is as capable as any man at flying but during the war she is used for ground duties and eventually for ferrying planes around the UK for repair and to collect aircraft personnel. The story is Maddie’s and that of her best friend Queenie who she meets during her training. They are two people who outwith the confines of the war would never be friends. Maddie is the granddaughter of a Jewish bike seller whilst Queenie is a Scottish aristocrat from a large family with a title and immense wealth.

This story is really touching and we are given more information slowly throughout the first two thirds of the book where our prisoner tells us about how she comes to be in Occupied France and how this links to the stories of Queenie and Maddie. We know it won’t have a happy ending but the story is heartbreaking and engaging and the further into the book you go the more entrancing the story becomes.

The last third of the book is told by a different narrator, Maddie. In this part of the book we fill in the blanks that our Gestapo prisoner was unable to tell us and it is in this section that we learn the whole truth about the novel and as it ended I was left breathless by how cleverly crafted the story had been and how people will find the strengh to rise to challenges they never could have faced if not forced to do so through wartime.

A wonderful novel it is a great read, I wouldn’t recommend it for very young pre-teen readers but I’d say that the content would be fine for ages 13 and above. I also imagine that the often long descriptions of flights and aircraft may put some readers off who find themselves bogged down in this and unable to cut through it to the heart and soul of the story. I can understand perhaps why it’s not used as a school text as often as others of a similar genre.

I really enjoyed this book but I’d still say Prisoner of Night & Fog remains my favourite Young Adult WWII novel.

A beautiful story of loss that has been adapted for the big screen

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am not one of these people who gets upset when books get turned into movies, for me it’s quite exciting to see stories I’ve loved brought to life off the page. Sometimes I’ve even discovered really good books on account of the fact I’ve seen trailers for movies that have then prompted me to go and find out more about the book itself.

I already knew a bit about The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman and had heard it highly recommended and it had been hiding on my e-reader with a promise that at some point I’d get around to reading it. Then I came across the trailer for the movie which is due to be released in October and I suddenly felt a burning urge to ensure I read it before I watch the adaptation to the big screen and I am very pleased I did and a little perplexed as to what took so long.

The Light Between Oceans is a story of a lighthouse keeper who moves to take over a new posting on a tiny island off the coast of Australia shortly after the end of the first World War. It is a remote island where the keeper can spend many months alone until the arrival of supplies by boat and they may not step foot ashore beside other people for years at a time. On one of his early trips back to the mainland he meets and falls in love with Isabel, the daughter of the local school headmaster and they begin corresponding and eventually marry and she moves with him back to his tiny island of Janus.

Their marriage is a happy one initially but is soon blighted by many miscarriages and stillbirths and it is shortly after the stillbirth of their son that a boat is washed up ashore on their tiny island containing the body of a stranger and his tiny baby daughter. Isabel is bereft from the loss of her own child and craving a child of her own and she persuades her husband that no one will know if they keep the tiny baby and say she is their own, after all the mother must also have drowned in the boat.

It’s a story where we feel the happiness of the family, there are only 3 of them on the island and they create their own little world together. They are happy and the little girl, whom they name Lucy, is loved beyond measure. They bring her home when they eventually get shore leave some 2 years later and introduce her to Isabel’s family and prepare for Lucy’s christening. It is then that they hear the story of a local woman whose husband and infant daughter were lost at sea approximately 2 years before and they realise that the mother they assumed to be dead is very much alive.

This is a book of complex emotions as a reader because you can feel Isabel’s pain, you can understand her choices and why under the weight of such intense grief and loss for her own baby she finds it easy to take the baby washed up ashore and use her as a way to fill that loss, choosing to persuade her husband to keep the baby. However as the book progresses we learn that whilst she has filled the gap left behind she has also developed a fierce protectiveness over her daughter that means that even when faced with another grieving mother seeking closure for her daughter lost at sea she cannot be truthful and admit what she has done. Instead she works tirelessly to justify her actions, to almost blackmail her husband into staying quiet with emotional threats.

One of the quotes that really stood out to me in the book to help understand Isabel’s feeling was the one that read “As a fourteen-year-old, Isabel had searched the dictionary. She knew that if a wife lost a husband, there was a whole new word to describe who she was: she was now a widow. A husband became a widower. But if a parent lost a child, there was no special label for their grief. They were still just a mother or a father, even if they no longer had a son or a daughter. That seemed odd.”

Tom is an entirely different character because he has no less love for the child but instead of feeling this as a signal to stay quiet about what they’ve done he finds his guilt presses him to want to reassure the mother that her child is safe. He is seeking redemption for his actions as a soldier during the war and as a way of righting his wrongs, he feels pressed to contact the other woman anonymously and let her know that her child is safe and loved.

The moral dilemma in this book is that we know that Tom is doing the right thing, the thing we like to think we would all do but we can understand the anger that Isabel feels at him for doing so, the increasing panic she feels that her child will be ripped from her. We want their child to remain theirs but we also know she doesn’t belong there. This is a wonderful book full of complex emotions and characters who are all essentially likeable and doing the things they feel are right and at the heart of the book is a child who is dearly loved by two families instead of just by one.

I have a feeling this will be a wonderful story on the big screen and that there will be many people who haven’t read the book who fall in love with the wonderful story. I cannot recommend it highly enough and will be desperate to see it as soon as I can to contrast it with it’s book version.

A beautiful historical novel from Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been a big Kate Morton fan since reading The Forgotten Garden and despite a dip in form in The Distant Hours she is definitely back to her best with The Secret Keeper.

From the first chapter it starts with a bang when Laurel Nicolson witnesses her mother Dorothy violently stab a man who comes to their quiet countryside home one summers afternoon. For years she has lived with what she saw without understanding why her mother would do such a thing but as she prepares for her mother’s 90th birthday many years later she begins to be drawn into the mystery even further.

Jumping between present day and London in the second world war we see the story through the eyes of Laurel, her mother Dorothy during the war and find out about the mysterious relationship between Dorothy and her friend Vivien. Twisting and turning from the start the writing is wonderful. The story is gripping and beautifully evocative of war time London. Just when you think you’ve got the ending all figured out it twists and turns again.

A brilliant book, I was reading it whilst on holiday in busy Blackpool and found that I couldn’t wait to keep going back to reading it, snatching moments in the car or a quick 5 minutes here and there to keep reading so gripping was the story. Very much recommended.

A touching and emotive novel set in WWII occupied France about sisterhood and friendship

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a month or so of sticking mainly to Young Adult fiction, I felt the need to read a “grown-up” book and one of the most frequently talked about books online was The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a book full of emotion and guaranteed to make you cry was the vibe that people game me about this story and it sounded like just what I was looking for.

Set in France during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War we follow two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle and their two different experiences during this time. Vianne lives just outside of a small village with her daughter Sophie and husband Antoine who is called away to fight for France and upon their surrender is captured as a Prisoner of War. Her younger sister Isabelle is a willful 17-year-old who has been expelled from countless boarding schools and is sent to live with her sister during the war by their father who has had little contact with his daughters since the death of his wife many years before.

The first thing I loved about this book was the way that we followed the two sisters throughout the years of the war, from the early years when hope was high and people believed it wouldn’t go on too long and that human kind would never be so cruel as to allow the kinds of torture the Nazi’s would inflict upon people. From their different perspectives, it’s a really insightful book as we see the two sides to the story. Isabelle’s strong beliefs and outspoken nature mean she struggles to be complacent with the changes to French life when the German’s arrive and take over. She is insolent and headstrong and this leaves her sister fearing she will do something to place them all in danger.

Vianne, on the other hand, is trying to comply where she can, to keep her head down and raise no attention to herself and her daughter. When a German officer begins living in her home she struggles with reconciling the image of the harsh Nazi officer with the sometimes gentle and kind man she meets. People begin to question if she is too close to her lodger and she feels it hard to judge what is acceptable to take for her survival and what to be classed as collaborating.

From these point of view of these two different women we follow the resistance movement during the war, the defiant and dangerous acts that were undertaken to help allied pilots who became stranded in France and also the risks taken to help protect Jewish children from the prisoner of war camps. The tearing apart of families and the loss of friends and the sense of community.

I love that we see two different extremes of the German officer, it was nice to not have them all painted as intrinsically evil but instead to look at the internal struggles many suffered as the German campaign to eradicate Jewish people grew as the war went on. Whilst many reveled in the power it brought them others just wanted to go home to their families as much as the French women longed for their men to come home.

This book was beautifully written, it was such a wonderful story of sisterhood, family, motherhood and the things we will do to survive. A really moving piece and at times, as promised, a tear-jerker. I now understand why it is given such wonderful reviews and is regarded so highly. It was my first Kristin Hannah novel but I am sure after this it will not be my last.

 

A wonderful tale of life on a prison island, filled with mystery and romance

Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kimberley Freeman is an author I discovered a year or so ago after reading her novel Wildflower Hill and I immediately fell in love with her mix of contemporary and historical fiction stories, often set in remote and picturesque Australian settings. Finding any new novel by this author is exciting and I have been looking forward to delving into Ember Island for some time now.

This book begins at the wedding of Tilly in 1890 where we find the bride very much in love with her husband and looking forward to her future with husband Jasper, but things take an alternative turn when Tilly’s beloved grandfather collapses at the wedding and she finds herself remaining behind to care for him rather than joining her new husband at their home on Guernsey.

The story of Tilly is mixed with that of author Nina, who struggling to finish her latest novel seeks solace on Ember Island in the old family house that she purchased. There she finds letters and diaries of her great-great grandmother who has hidden the pages in the walls of the home Nina is now seeking to renovate, piece by piece she begins to pull together an understanding of life on Ember Island at the turn of the century.

What I loved about this book is that unlike similar historical/contemporary novels, who follow a dual storyline format, we don’t find ourselves jumping endlessly backward and forward in time. Instead, much of the book is told from the perspective of Tilly. We follow her journey as a newlywed to join her husband Jasper and begin their new life on Guernsey, we share her despair as she realises she’s been tied into a loveless marriage with a man who is in love with another and follow her as she escapes Guernsey after a terrible tragedy occurs for which she blames herself.

Tilly is a wonderful main character and Freeman writes her story beautifully, we long for Tilly to find happiness and share with her the guilt she carries with her for the events she is fleeing from. Ember Island proves a wonderful setting for the novel, an island with a prison on it where she finds herself fulfilling the role of governess to Nell, the only daughter of the widowed prison governor Sterling. She finds herself glimpsing happiness on the island but struggles when she forms a friendship with a prisoner on the island, Hettie, and draws comparisons between her own circumstances and those of the inmate.

Although it is a good blend in this book of the modern and the historic, almost the book could have stood alone as a purely historical novel. Whilst Nina’s story is interesting and gives us a chance to refocus during the novel by stepping back from Tilly’s world, I question whether in fact it added anything to the narrative or if like me readers have found themselves just skimming them so they could return to the heart of the action. I wanted this book to be a 5-star review, and at points I thought it had that potential but I also felt that the ending in some ways was not as satisfying as the beginning of the book. I wanted a more rounded conclusion. Instead, it seemed to be a little pulled together in a very small epilogue that left me wanting more for Tilly.

I would say that this book is my second favourite novel by this author after Wildflower Hill and if you are a lover of authors like Kate Morton and Rachel Hore then this is an author I am absolutely sure you will enjoy reading.