0

The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy

This isn’t a book review – thought I’d change things up a bit, as it’s Christmas. Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite poets, and a couple of years ago my Mum brought me this little illustrated book as a festive stocking filler. It’s since become one of my favourite poems, and, although it’s quite lengthy, I thought I’d type it up for you all to have a read of this Christmas; because, to me, it really seems to capture the spirit of Christmas. 

“Christmas Eve in the trenches of France,

the guns were quiet.

The dead lay still in No Man’s Land – 

Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank…

The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

 

Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel,

sparkled and winked.

A boy from Stroud stared at a star

to meet his mother’s eyesight there.

An owl swooped on a rat on the glove of a corpse.

 

In a copse of trees behind the lines,

a lone bird sang.

A soldier-poet noted it down – a robin

holding his winter ground – 

then silence spread and touched each man like a hand.

 

Somebody kissed the gold of his ring,

a few lit pipes; 

most, in their greatcoats, huddled,

waiting for sleep.

The liquid mud had hardened at last in the freeze.

 

But it was Christmas Eve; believe, belief

thrilled the night air,

where glittering rime on unburied sons

treasured their stiff hair.

The sharp, clean, midwinter smell held memory.

 

On watch, a rifleman scoured the terrain – 

no sign of life, 

no shadows, shots from snipers,

nowt to note or report.

The frozen, foreign fields were acres of pain.

 

Then flickering flames from the other side danced in his eyes, 

as Christmas trees in their dozens shone,

candlelit on the parapets,

and they started to sing, all down the German lines.

 

Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot,

or vaporised,

by falling shells, or live to tell,

heard for the first time then –

Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schlaft, einsam wacht… 

 

Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge,

from man to man;

a gift to the heart from home,

or childhood, some place shared…

When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.

 

A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel

and all joined in,

till the Germans stood, seeing

across the divide, 

the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.

 

All night, along the Western Front they sang,

the enemies – 

carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems,

in German, English, French;

each battalion choired in its grim trench.

 

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist,

to open itself

and offer the day like a gift

for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz…

with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

 

Frohe Weihnachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!

A young Berliner, 

brandishing Schnapps,

was the first from his ditch to climb.

A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

 

Then it was up and over, every man,

to shake the hand,

of a foe as a friend,

or slap his back like a brother would;

exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

 

Tickler’s jam…for cognac, sausages, cigars, beer, sauerkraut;

Or chase six hares, who jumped

from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball

and make of a battleground a football pitch.

 

I showed him a picture of my wife.

Ich zeigte ihm

ein Foto meine Frau.

Sie sei schon, sagte er.

He thought her beautiful, he said.

 

They buried the dead then, hacked spades

 into hard earth

again and again, till a score of men

were at rest, identified, blessed.

Der Herr ist mein Hirt…my shepherd, I shall not want.

 

And all that marvellous, festive day and night, 

they came and went,

the officers, the rank and file, 

their fallen comrades side by side

beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves…

 

…beneath the shivering, shy stars

and the pinned moon

and the yawn of History;

the high, bright bullets

which each man later only aimed at the sky.”

 

 

 

0

The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks

Image

 

RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Miller’s life was turned upside down when her parents divorced and her father moved from New York to Wilmington, North Carolina. Since then she has remained angry and alienated from her parents, until her mother decides she should spend the summer with her father. Ronnie’s father, a former concert pianist and teacher, is living a quiet life in the beach town, immersed in creating a work of art that will become the centrepiece of a local church. What unfolds is an unforgettable tale about love – first love and the love between parents and children – that demonstrates the many ways that relationships can break our hearts…and heal them.”

REVIEW: I feel that I should first give warning that this book made me cry more than any other book has done for a while. And when I say cry, I mean lay in my bed sobbing into the duvet for a good half an hour. I love reading Nicholas Sparks’ novels; the writing may be simplistic and the plotlines often predictable, but there is always a shock near the end of the novel that leaves me either breathless or bawling, and I admire Sparks for that. And although the writing does seem simple, Sparks can write to evoke true and pure emotion – the character of Jonah, Ronnie’s younger brother, was particularly well-written throughout the novel, and had me heartbroken by the end of it. Despite the fact that the novel is a romance, with a beautifully told story of love between two young, lost teenagers, Ronnie and Will (who, I must confess, I fell in love with a little bit), I would state that the real emotion and beauty of the novel comes with the changing and developing relationship between Ronnie and her father, which fast became one of my favourite relationships out of all of Sparks’ novels. I would definitely recommend this book – but when you buy it, make sure to pick up a tub of ice cream and a box of tissues, too!

0

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Image

 

RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Helen Codrington is unhappily married. Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull hasn’t seen her once-dear friend for years. After bumping into Helen on the streets of Victorian London, Fido finds herself reluctantly helping her to carry out an affair with a young army officer. The women’s friendship quickly unravels amid courtroom accusations of adultery, counter-accusations of cruelty and attempted rape, and the appearance of a mysterious ‘sealed letter’ that could destroy more than one life…”

REVIEW: This book, based on a real-life scandal that took place in England in 1864, was a little difficult to get into (my Nan found the same thing, when I lent it to her); but, once it did get going, I found myself thoroughly gripped by the story. The fact that it was based on real life events made the peculiar friendship between Helen and Fido all the more interesting, especially as it was easy to sense that there had once been much more than just friendship between these two women. Links to the feminist movement were frequent and excellently written – having just had a series of lectures on the Victorian feminist movement, I can bear witness to their accuracy! Attitudes towards women – and, indeed, towards lesbianism – were extremely well-portrayed, and I felt particularly sorry for Fido by the end of the novel. Despite the fact that I found it difficult to like her at first, I felt some sympathy towards Fido in that her love for Helen was not only unrequited, it was incomprehensible to the rest of society. Although a little slow-moving and hard-going at times, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any feminists like myself who are interested in the origins of this great movement.

0

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Image

 

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Newspeak, Doublethink, Big Brother, the Thought Police – George Orwell’s world-famous novel coined new and potent warnings for us all. Alive with Swiftian wit and passion, it is one of the most brilliant satires on totalitarianism and the power-hungry ever written.”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved this book. It’s reputation precedes it as a modern classic, and how very thankful I am that Orwell’s dark vision of the world, fuelled by fears of communism brought about by Soviet expansion after the Second World War, never came into being in 1984! We see this world, controlled by a rigid totalitarian regime where everyone is carefully monitored for signs of rebellion, through the eyes of Winston Smith, a worker in the Ministry of Truth (which actually creates propaganda material, erasing individuals and even wars from history as though they had never been) who sees through Big Brother’s regime and longs to fight against it. He seems to have met his match in co-worker Julia, and their budding relationship in the face of such extreme adversity was beautiful to read. It is hard to continue to discuss the novel without spoiling the ending – but I will say that the end of the novel shocked, horrified and angered me; possibly because it seemed so worryingly real. 

0

At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard-Barnhill

Image

 

RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition. Desperate to hold on to the King’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the Queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier and is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the King and betray the love of her life, or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardise the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.”

REVIEW: This book has been on my shelf for some time and I was really looking forward to reading it. Although I enjoyed the book, I did hold some issues with parts – while I was hugely impressed with Barnhill’s efforts at historical accuracy (the romance between Madge and Arthur Brandon is perhaps a little far-fetched, but it adds a new dimension to the story without taking away anything from the actual facts), I did find that the writing often seemed quite simple, perhaps even a little stilted, with some parts seeming rather rushed; for example, any political elements were dealt with swiftly, and I was upset by the fact that Barnhill did not deal with the deaths of George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and William Brereton for any longer than a sentence – I felt that some detail was needed in order to portray these executions with the sensitivity they deserve. While on such a subject, I was also disappointed with how George Boleyn was portrayed – this may be because I’m rather biased towards him and am currently writing a biography of him myself, but I felt that his character could have played a much more integral role in the story. I did, however, truly enjoy Barnhill’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn. She showed Anne’s ambition, shrewdness and volatile temper, of course, but she also illustrates Anne’s fears, her vulnerability, and most importantly her charitable and educational efforts, which are often overlooked. Madge was also a likeable, if somewhat shallow, character, and I found myself feeling quite fond of her by the end of the book! Although this may not be the best Tudor historical fiction I have ever read, I would definitely recommend it to fans of Tudor history, simply for this refreshing and sensitive take on Anne Boleyn and her personality.

0

Top Ten Books I’ve Read This Year!

I thought I’d do one of those traditional summary lists of my favourite books I’ve read in the past year…and believe me, I’ve read some amazing ones! It’s going to be impossible to put my Top Ten in numerical order, but these are 10 books I would definitely recommend for everyone.

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  2. A Song of Ice and Fire (the whole series – though if I had to pick a favourite, it’d be A Storm of Swords) by George R.R. Martin
  3. Passion by Jude Morgan
  4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  5. A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb
  6. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
  7. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  8. Love and Misadventure by Lang Leav
  9. The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb
  10. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I’ve also got some more books that I’ve neglected to review in the past couple of months, so keep an eye out for a few more reviews! Might even help you to decide what to ask for for Christmas 😛