Tag Archives: Sussex

The Summer Before the War

simonson_summer_final

Title:  The Summer Before the War
Author:  Helen Simonson
Publisher:  Random House
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-451-48211-2

Book Summary:
Following her father’s death and the lukewarm reception from her relatives, Beatrice Nash is compelled to seek out employment on her own.  After traveling the world with her father and handling all his papers and correspondence in exotic locales, East Sussex is quite the lackluster destination.  But, in 1914, a woman seeking a position as a Latin teacher, must accept any opportunity that is offered.

Agatha Kent is a force to be reckoned with in the small, insulated community of Rye.  Her reputation and word are on the line as she has pushed for the hiring of Miss Nash.  Her husband works in the Foreign Office and although there is plenty of unrest on the continent, no one is very concerned during this idyllic summer.  As Agatha and John Kent have no children of their own, they dote on their two nephews.  As different as can be, Daniel dreams of writing poetry and enjoying the pastoral life while Hugh works to finish his medical degree and impress both Sir Alex Ramsey, his mentor, and Lucy, his daughter.  Both nephews, however, dote on their aunt and assist with her numerous involvements.

And so begins a summer in Rye.  Beatrice tutors three reluctant and diverse boys from the community, the Mayor’s wife continues to flaunt her position and influence, and the town opens its homes to Belgium refugees.  Although the refuges tell of the horrors of the war, the town continues to live in denial until the inevitable happens.  As England joins the war, the town and its population will never be the same.

Book Commentary:
Wow!  This book was nothing like I expected.  I was familiar with the author whose first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, garnered a great deal of attention and honors, but I haven’t read it.  It is now on my list.  The book starts as a truly beautiful and nostalgic visit to simpler times.  The town gossip, the shock at a woman riding a bicycle, the prejudice towards both the Belgium refuges and the traveling gypsies all encompass the minds and talk of the townsfolk.  A friend asked me what I thought of the book when I was about two-thirds of the way through and I said it was “nice.”  It was a quiet, peaceful, armchair kind of read.

Then suddenly for the reader, the shock, horrors, and reality of the war are thrust into the forefront.  The author created the same feel for the reader that townspeople must have felt; all that they held true and right was destroyed in an instant.  I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book; I was riveted by the final third.  The author slowly and meticulously shows the destruction of a previous way of life.  I gasped and sobbed as I finished the final third of the book.  I felt compelled and driven to continue reading but at the same time was constantly fearful and anxious as I turned each page.  Truly a brilliant work and one I highly recommend.

On a separate and a bit humorous note, I accidentally purchased the Large Print version off Amazon.  I’m not quite to the age or need for this type of book, and I struggled a bit with the format.  As I got further into the story however, I was reminded of my grandmother who used to read the Large Print versions of books, and although she was just a child at the start of World War I, I couldn’t help but think of how her family and life were also forever changed.

Who might like this book:   
I’ve been reading a lot of post-World War I books recently, but few before the war.  The contrast between the times is sweeping and heart-breaking but I admired the endurance of the characters and their spirit.

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Lost Among the Living

Lost Among the Living

Title:  Lost Among the Living
Author:  Simone St. James
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-451-47619-7

Book Summary:
Although the war is over and her husband did not come home, Jo Manders does not feel closure.  Her husband was shot down in Germany but as no body was ever found, he is listed as missing in action and she cannot truly view herself as a widow.  With no benefits and limited job prospects in 1921 England, Jo is forced to sell her belongings and become a lady’s companion to Dottie Forsyth, Alex’s husband’s wealthy but patronizing aunt.  Jo travels with Dottie through Europe as she meticulously and ruthlessly purchases art.  Although dealing with Dottie is a challenge, Jo finds her days busy and numbing.  When Dottie announces that they will be traveling to the family estate of Wych Elm House in Sussex, Jo is filled with apprehension and sadness as she returns to English soil.

Life at Wych Elm House provides Jo with a very different view of her husband’s family.  She meets Dottie’s husband Robert; whose existence Jo was unaware.  He is both flirty and distant, harsh and unemotional.  Also newly arrived at the house is Dottie’s son Martin, who was injured in the war and still deals with both emotional and physical pain.  There is yet another inhabitant of the house, although Jo is the only one who can see Francis, Dottie’s dead daughter.

Alternating between sanity and madness, Francis had always been a difficult child.  She claimed to be frightened of the creatures who came through the door.  The people of the surrounding estates and towns were afraid of Francis and now claim that her ghost haunts the woods.  She committed suicide by jumping off the roof and a darkness has since spread throughout the house.  Jo finds her belongings moved and leaves appearing inside the house; when she sees Francis, she becomes afraid that the madness has crept into her own psyche.

Soon Jo realizes that Francis is asking for her help and Jo must delve into the family’s secrets.  What she discovers about her own husband shocks her and she questions whether she truly knew him.  Time is running out however as Francis’ ghost becomes more active and Jo fears for her sanity and her life.  She just isn’t sure who she should be afraid of – the dead or the living.

Book Commentary:
This is the fifth book by Simone St. James and they just keep getting better!  Set in the same time period as her previous novels, St. James explores the generation following World War 1.  Those who come home are dealing with physical pain and mental horror, but I find the characters who were left behind equally compelling.  There is a sense of desperation about Jo and the loss of her husband.  Her own background is fraught with sorrow and loss, and I just wanted the poor woman to get a break!  Her strength of character is admirable and there is a sense of compulsion and desperation in her fight for any sense of peace.

St. James also incorporates some fascinating details about how the Sussex coast could have played a part in the war.  This plot detail really brings the story together and gives depth beyond a paranormal romance story.  Even if a reader isn’t into “ghosts,” you can really appreciate the gothic atmosphere and rich details of the plot.

Who might like this book:
I don’t think fans of St. James will be disappointed with the story.  The protagonist is a widow, which is a departure from her previous stories, but the character is very appealing and heartfelt.  Fans of a good suspense story should definitely check out this author.  As I have previously mentioned, I shied away from her books because I am not a fan of horror stories and the back cover plot descriptions turned me off.  This couldn’t be more from the truth; the fast-paced, atmospheric story really kept me engaged and fascinated.