Heartbreaker: The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was one of the early books my book club chose to read. I was completely taken in by the story of a gruff old man learning how to let go of his prejudices in a town that had always enforced them, of learning to open his heart to a most unexpected love.

That book was published way back in 2010. I wasn’t waiting for a new book from Simonson, but when it showed up on my radar, I was interested.

Then I started reading reviews of it on Goodreads and people didn’t seem to love it. I backed off.

I came across a copy at the library a few weeks ago and thought “why not?”


The Summer Before the War is set in a village in England, in the summer of 1914. Beatrice Nash has taken the post of Latin teacher at the school, the first woman to ever hold the post. When she arrives she meets Agatha Kent, who has been instrumental in Miss Nash’s success in getting the job. Mrs Kent warns her that she has a lot riding on her doing well in the job. Mrs Kent has two nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Daniel fancies himself a poet, intent on running away to Paris and setting up a literary magazine with his titled best friend; Hugh is training to be a surgeon, the more serious of the cousins, he becomes a good friend to Beatrice.

The book becomes about the havoc that the war wreaks on a certain way of life in England at the time. Belgian refugees come to the village, straining resources and forcing people to confront the realities of a war they’d prefer not to think about too much. This book is less about whatever might happen between Beatrice and Hugh and more about how a whole village does or does not pull together in a time of crisis.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get into this one. Simonson lays a lot of groundwork of the time, the characters, their backgrounds, the rules that govern society – all on a backdrop of this idyllic, golden English summer. I found it hard to figure out how much time had passed – war seemed to very suddenly affect the village in a myriad of ways and it felt like more time should have passed. But you know, I wasn’t around in 1914, so maybe that’s exactly how it played out. Simonson probably knows better than me.

The strength of this book lies in the foundation. Before you know it, you are deeply invested in the lives of the characters that you’ve totally fallen in love with. Snout, a 15-year-old with a questionable heritage, a passion for Latin, who decides war will be the making of him; Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee who needs the support of the village when the full extent of her experiences become known; Eleanor, whose German husband is in Germany and who people suspect of possibly being a spy. And of course, Beatrice, Agatha, Daniel and Hugh.

And lest you think it’s completely character driven, know that Simonson also did an amazing job, like she did with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, of examining the prejudices of the day. Women’s suffrage, the plight of the Fallen Woman, antipathy towards the area’s Romani population, and class snobbery are all embroidered in the fabric of the story.

By the time I finished reading this one, tears were streaming down my face. Totally unexpected.

I meant to buy this one many times over and now that I’ve returned the library’s copy, I regret that I didn’t give in to that temptation. This is a book I would have liked to loan to others.


Library Checkout – August 2016


We are getting to the end of summer and I for one could not be more thrilled about it. I am more than ready for cooler temperatures, rainy days, more layers and pumpkin-spiced everything. I don’t even like things pumpkin-spice flavoured, it’s just a sign that summer is but a memory. And now that it’s the end of August (again, hooray!), it’s time to join Shannon @ Rivercity Reading in looking at how we used the library this month.

Another fairly quiet month for me. I am looking forward to more piles of books in fall, and chilly, rainy, grey days to enjoy them on.

Library Books Read
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (at least I didn’t buy it)
The Assistants by Camille Perri (which I loved and devoured in a day)
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (ended up loving it, will post soon)

Checked Out, To Be Read
All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani
Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
The After Party by Anton Disclafani
Under the Udala Tree by Chinelo Okparanta

Returned, Unread
None this month!

On Hold
Nothing but I’ve been toying with the idea of putting My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier on hold for a while. Thought about doing the same with Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck but then I realized that I always love his work and just bought it.

Not a huge library month quantity-wise, but a mostly quality library month.


An unpopular opinion

So I finally read Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family and I did not like it.

I think I might be alone here. If you want to read differing opinions from mine, may I recommend posts from Catherine @ The Gilmore Guide to Books , or Sarah @ Sarah’s Book Shelves?

I meant to read this book for a long time – in part because I kept reading reviews like that! And then I didn’t until I saw it at the library and decided to grab it.

I was prepared to have my heart ripped out, to wake up with puffy, red eyes, to have difficulty moving on.

I could not wait to move on from this book.

June’s daughter, daughter’s fiancé, her boyfriend and her ex-husband all die in an explosion in her house the morning of what was supposed to be her daughter’s wedding day. After the funerals, she leaves town, driving as far away as she can possibly get. Each chapter is told from the perspective of someone in June’s life, or June herself; her boyfriend’s mother, his father, people in town who had some tie to them, the folks in the town where she ends up. Through their stories, you piece together what’s happened and I liked that about it. I always enjoy when a bunch of seemingly unconnected stories come together to form a whole.

Aside from the incredibly depressing tone of the entire novel (which doesn’t automatically detract from the reading experience), my biggest issue with this book was that the women spent their time beating themselves up about everything while the male characters found redemption and resolution. The women looked back on their lives, how they got to this moment, and tried to think of all the things they could have done differently, all the hurt that they’d stored up over a lifetime and used it to self-flagellate. The men, looked back and went “this is what happened, I’ve made my peace.”

How nice for you.

I was led to believe that it was the kind of story where everyone comes together to support those who are hurting. But actually they were all incredibly separate from what had happened and in one case, everything was made so much worse by the gossip spread about the character. All of the characters seemed to be an island unto themselves, forced to confront their pain alone and hope for the best.

It’s not a long book, barely 300 pages, but for me, it felt interminable.



Unwilling to move on

Late last year, I read The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi. At the time, I wrote about how reading it had me burst into tears and wanting to do something to make even a tiny bit of difference in the lives of women like the ones in the story.

I just finished reading Hashimi’s When the Moon is Low and felt similar things.


When the Moon is Low is the story of Fereiba Waziri. When Fereiba is born, her mother dies. Her father remarries and once the new wife begins having her own babies (four girls), Fereiba becomes little more than a servant. She is kept out of school year after year to help her stepmother run the house and look after the girls. Eventually, she convinces her father that she needs to go to school, that the only way she will ever have any kind of life is if she learns.

So she goes to school, works hard and excels. Eventually, with the help of her husband and mother-in-law, she becomes a teacher. She and her husband, Mahmoud, fall in love, against all odds of an arranged marriage, and Fereiba is able to put her old life, where she felt unwanted and unloved, behind her. Eventually she has children, a son, then a daughter. When she becomes pregnant with their third child, Kabul is a very different place than it was when she arrived as a bride. The Taliban is in power and women are no longer allowed to leave the house uncovered, without a male chaperone. Fereiba and her husband make plans to leave Afghanistan, to make their way to London where they have family.

Before they can leave, the Taliban show up at the door and take Mahmoud away for questioning. He never returns. Fereiba, heavily pregnant, with two other children completely dependent on her, has to make a decision about whether or not to go ahead with the plans they had made.

Fereiba and her three children decide to leave, to make their way to London and hopefully a better life.

Along the way, Fereiba’s oldest son gets separated from the rest of the family.

I KNOW. This book!

The first third of the book is Fereiba’s story – her childhood, the loss of a mother she never knew and the hole it left in her life, fighting for her education, the way Afghanistan changed in that time. After that, her son, Saleem, takes over. While Fereiba has told us the story of how they got to this point, Saleem is charged with telling us how it all turns out.

For me, this solved one of the big issues that I had with The Pearl That Broke Its Shell – the back and forth storytelling, alternating every chapter. I felt like I was able to spend the time with Fereiba that I needed in order to be invested in the story.

Again, the issue of education for women was a big theme from the beginning but as the story moves forward, that takes a backseat to the issue of immigration and refugees. Fereiba and her family have to work so hard, pay so much money, sacrifice so much in order to be able to live the kind of life that we all have a right to. The story takes place in the late 1990s but so much of what happened in the book is happening right now and it was difficult to read sometimes.  Saleem is barely 16 and he takes on so much for his family, he goes through so much, treated like a non-human, reviled by the people he’s hoping to get help from.

It took me a while (for me) to move onto another book. Part of that was that I didn’t get all the resolution I hoped for from this book. And the rest was that this was such an affecting, powerful story that I didn’t quite know what to do, where to go, what to read when I was done.

Days later, I’m still thinking about it. And about the millions of people that are currently trying to make their way to a better life, willing to sacrifice just about everything. I’m thinking about Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s quote about people and capital, talking about the world she wants for her daughter:

I want her to live in a world where borders are not as policed as they are. It’s very easy to move capital, but very difficult to move labour and people. I want that to change.



Work, work, work: a biography

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman had been sitting on my shelves for ages. I think I actually bought it in March, as part of my birthday book haul. But it had been on my theoretical shelf since it was published.

I finally read it!

Amanda @ Gun in Act One read it before me. She told me that it had been difficult to get into and yeah, she nailed it.


This biography is not for those of you that think non-fiction is hard to read. This will absolutely solidify your opinion in that direction. This is one of those biographies that takes all of you to read. Partly, I think it’s that Charlotte and her siblings lived so much of their lives in their own heads. All of their imaginary worlds, the characters they created and wrote about throughout their childhood and adolescence.

And of course, in the end, they all died before their lives were truly lived. Emily, Anne and Charlotte all left their mark on the world, more so than they probably ever would have guessed. But Branwell (and you can’t talk about the Bronte sisters without talking about Branwell since the direction his life was taking inspired them to try to make their own living) – he flamed out quickly.

Mostly, reading about the Brontes makes me sad. It made me sad when I read the fictionalized account from Syrie James and reading the real life version from Harman was no different. Like Amanda, I wonder what they could have achieved had they been more robust, or even just more out in the world. All of them railed against the constrictions of women at the time, in their own quiet ways. Reading about how bereft Charlotte was after the deaths of her siblings, how she would just sit in the quiet house all by herself in the evenings, when they used to all sit together and work on their stories at that time – heartbreaking. I had a hard time reading Shirley but knowing now that she worked on it when she was working through her grief, it almost makes me want to go back and try it again.

One of the things that really surprised me was how obsessed Charlotte became with her Belgian professor, Constantin Heger. It doesn’t surprise me that the title of this book is A Fiery Heart because Charlotte Bronte really did feel things excessively. I think she very much wanted to scream her passions across oceans but of course, being a woman of her time, she couldn’t. She settled for writing him a lot of letters – so many that he had to ask her to please limit herself to two letters a year.

I would recommend this book to those of you who regularly flex your non-fiction muscle; those of you who enjoy reading about the internal life of those who write your favourite books. If non-fiction isn’t your thing, I suspect this one would be a long slog but if you still wanted to read about the Brontes, go with the Syrie James.

It did really make me want to re-read some of their books though. Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in particular. (Anne never does get the credit she deserves)


A thriller you’ve been waiting for

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You all know that I am always up for crime fiction or thrillers. As the genre becomes more and more dominant, it can sometimes feel like you’re reading the same story over and over.


When I first started reading The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, I admit to feeling that way. Anne and Marco Conti are having dinner with their neighbours, Cynthia and Graham Stilwell. Anne’s been struggling with post-partum depression in the 6 months since their daughter, Cora, was born. Tonight, Cynthia, someone she used to be close friends with, is flirting shamelessly with Marco and Anne is having a hard time with it. Because their babysitter cancelled last minute, the Contis are taking turns checking on sleeping Cora every 30 minutes.

The evening ends with the discovery of a crime. This throws everyone, the Contis, Stilwells and the reader, on a thrill ride of discovery that has some pretty wicked twists and turns.

Lapena is masterful at keeping the reader guessing. There are a lot of elements to this book and there were moments reading this where I wondered how it was all going to work out. How could all these different things, these random facts actually have anything to do with what happened? Was it just littered with red herrings?

No. Lapena is just that good.

And lest you think that it’s only about plot, rest assured – it’s not. The cast of characters is so well-formed, so flawed, all of them caught up in a web of secrets that’s now threatening to ensnare them. Anne hasn’t been totally honest with Marco about things that happened in her past; Marco’s been keeping some pretty big things to himself as well. The Couple Next Door is just as much a portrait of marriage as it is a mystery.

And the ending?! I have not been so DELIGHTED with an ending in a good long while. It was exquisite.

I devoured this book. Know that if you start reading this, you’re not going to want to be torn away from it.

This is Lapena’s debut novel and if this is what she’s bringing to the table the first time out, I cannot wait to read what else she might have for us. And while I dislike the practice of comparing books to others (you know the books I’m talking about), know that this book more than holds it’s own among them.

The Couple Next Door is what you’ve been waiting for. If you like thrillers, if you enjoy a well-paced mystery that leaves you just one step behind the whole time, read this.


Filling the Downton Abbey void

It’s maybe been a while since I mentioned that I loved Downton Abbey. I mean, it was a popular show, I’m not alone in this. The show definitely also sent me scurrying after related reading material. That’s how I came to read Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, and then Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, and even Below Stairs, which really led to Serving Victoria.

Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had a follow up show where he visits famous estates and digs around to find out some of the more interesting stories. It’s called Great Houses with Julian Fellowes and it’s awesome.

Recently, I read his new book, Belgravia.


Belgravia opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels. The next day many of the guests go off to fight in the battle; many of them do not return. We meet the Trenchard family – James, his wife Anne and their beautiful daughter Sophia. James is a supplier to the army and his fortunes have been climbing as he’s able to achieve what most cannot. They manage to get an invite to the ball via Sophia’s relationship with Lord Bellasis, a favourite nephew of the Duchess of Richmond.

In a time when social rules dictated who could marry whom, Sophia is not a ‘good’ match for Lord Bellasis – her father works.

The rest of the story takes place in London in the 1840s, when those heady days in Brussels changes everything for these families.

I know – I’m being vague again. But the enjoyment of this book relies on one not knowing very much going in.

Here’s what’s interesting about Belgravia: yes, you can read it in traditional book format, but originally it was released as a serialization, both text and audio,  via an app! The book very much reads this way – each chapter feels episodic, there are cliffhangers, and I ended up speeding through the 402 pages.

Otherwise, this book was eminently readable. There is no one better when it comes to this type of historical feature. Fellowes has an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to society, the relationships therein, the changes as a new class of wealth showed up on the scene intent on mingling with the top echelons of English Society, as well as the dynamics of service at the time. The characters feel like real people and Fellowes writes for an audience that he knows is capable of following along. He doesn’t write down to you, he doesn’t affect jargon of the time to try and lend his work more credibility. It just is credible. Even watching him on Great Houses, I’m always struck by how polite he is, how respectful he is of everyone he interacts with.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be notable, but it totally is.

If you miss Downton, this should fill the void.