World War I

The Summer Before the War is Terrific

Helen Simonson meets expectations with second novel.

Helen Simonson meets expectations with second novel.

 I reserved this book from the public library because I enjoyed Helen Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, so much. I figured The Summer Before the War had a good chance of being good. It is terrific.

In the beginning of the year, when I discovered a book of WWI poetry in Australia, I read many of the poems that inspired Simonson's second novel. The story is moved forward by Hugh, a recently qualified surgeon, and his cousin Daniel, a poet. Enter into their life a new village schoolteacher Beatrice. Their friendship grows as the war begins with the Prussian invasion of Belgium. 

Simonson draws a portrait of village life and stock village personalities while developing a compelling love story and the development of her characters under the pressure of war. Her prose drew me in from the first chapter and I spent most of today finishing the novel. 

The conclusion is very satisfying. I especially like Daniel's last conversation with Hugh in France. The struggles facing Beatrice in a society that still constricts women is painful to read about, and I had mixed feelings as she wanted her independence and yet clearly a good marriage would save her much grief. There are some hard parts to read when Lord North, a Brigadier General, lets his cruelty run unchecked against his own men and a dog. 

I highly recommend reading this book for a satisfying weekend.

What is the best book, new or old, you read in 2014?

by Sonali Deraniyagala

This question was posted on Twitter and 14 different authors responded. I had not read any of their books, so I pulled out my two journals from this year and looked at the list of books I read. I keep track because I have a memory like a sieve and sometimes I can remember the contents but not the author or title. It is my cheat sheet.

I read many memoirs. I read my favorite of the year in January. Sonali Deraniyagala's account of the tsunami that took her family earned these comments: "WOW! Such courage." The book is Wave and it is a relatively quick read. Today is the 10 anniversary of the Asian tsunami, so go to your local independent bookstore and buy it and read. It will also clarify what is important in your life before 2015.

Best fiction novel was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This was a book I traded for on my Tour de France adventure. I loved it and passed it on to Grace Julie. When the ebola crisis hit I felt a connection to the people suffering in Africa that I might not have felt except for reading this novel. This may sound silly unless you are an avid novel reader. A good novel creates sympathies where none existed before--for me an interest and care for the people of Nigeria.


All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was the best older book I have read this year and part of my reading list for the World War I anniversary. Every time there is a news story on the anniversary I think about this book. It is so profound and so beautifully written. What is friendship? Why war? What does it mean to be an adult?

What is the best book, new or old, you read in 2014?