Have you #Read My Two favorite #Books from 2015?

I haven’t read as many books as I’d like this year, but there are two that clearly stand out for me as memorable reads of 2015. Fittingly for the 100th anniversary, they are both set in and around WWI.

#Book 1: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

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This book is strictly speaking a memoir, but it is so engrossing it moves at the pace and in the narrative style of a novel. It’s the story of Vera’s experience both just before and during WWI, when she left her Oxford studies to become a nurse. What is particularly striking about the novel, is not just the heartbreak and loss she herself experiences throughout, but how much the war effects the English as a nation. The ongoing rationing, loss and horrific stories of life in the trenches, ground the people down to a collective depression. As is often the case, when the conflict started the consensus was it would be a fleeting event and the toll would be small. Of course the complete opposite was true.

I think this passage captures the general mood of despair and lack of control over the characters lives. More importantly we see how central love is to the heart of the novel.

And then, all at once, the whistle sounded again and the train started. As the noisy group moved away from the door he sprang on to the footboard, clung to my hand and, drawing my face down to his, kissed my lips in a sudden vehemence of despair. And I kissed his, and just managed to whisper ‘Good-bye!’ The next moment he was walking rapidly down the platform, with his head bent and his face very pale. Although I had said that I would not, I stood by the door as the train left the station and watched him moving through the crowd. But he never turned again.”  ~ Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

#Book 2: Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This novel is a completely different book, but the effects of WWI are also key to the setting of the 1920s. After the death of the father and brother in the war, a young woman and her mother have fallen onto hard times. To make ends meet they are forced into taking lodgers in their formerly grand house. This quote gives a good sense of where Frances’ life is starting from at the beginning of the novel.

“She rose from her bed full of new resolutions. ‘We must get out and about more,’ she told her startled mother. ‘We must try different things. We are getting groovy.’ She drew up a list of events and activities: concerts, day trips, public meetings. She went in a fit through her address book, writing letters to old friends. She borrowed novels from the library by authors who had never interested her before. She began to teach herself Esperanto, reciting phrases as she polished and swept.”
~Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

However, things do not go as planned. The first plot twist takes us by surprise:

“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening- Frances could think of nothing to compare it to save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.” 
~ Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

Even when we think the novel has become a lesbian love story, the plot suddenly throws us against the wall and takes a dramatic turn. What has been a fairly slow moving pace speeds up to breakneck speed and the reader is in a full blown thriller, filled with nail biting suspense.

“Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”
~Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

This is by far the best Sarah Waters novel to date. She has matured as a writer and the characters are so well developed we feel both an affinity and a loathing for the protagonists as the story follows the plots twists. The turn of events challenges the morality of two ordinary women who find themselves in an untenable situation after a completely unplanned and dreadful occurrence.

The novel also gives the reader an excellent look at the class differences of the day, as well as the gradually changing, but still very limited role offered to women in society.

This is my final post for 2015. Thanks so much for all your support and wonderful comments throughout the year. Have a good holiday season and I’ll see you back here in January!

What were your two favorite books from 2015? Come join the discussion. Share the love and please post this on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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  1. Yes, I already had Vera Brittain’s book in my to-read list (someone else also loved it). I need to request my library get a copy. They do have the Sarah Waters’ book.
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    • Great minds think alike Leora. It was actually coincidence that I read them both within a short space of time right when there were the big celebrations in the UK for the 100th anniversary. They are both very much English books well rooted in the culture of the day. What was really amazing is that bRittain’s was written in 1935, but hadn’t dated at all, except in the sense that she used the language of the day as it were. Hope you enjoy them both:-)
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  2. Loved Testament of Youth which I read few years ago but haven’t forgotten.
    Not having enjoyed a previous novel by Sarah Waters (the one about the Victorian women’s prison, love between women, a medium etc) I decided not to tackle The Paying Guests.
    Like so many other I discovered Elena Ferante this year and that has kept me very busy indeed. I love them, but the four Naples novels have taken so much time and emotion that I will not being reading any more of her for a while.
    Another discovery this year is Roma Tearne’s The Last Pier – beautiful poetic writing and absolutely engrossing story.

    • Oh thanks for this Barbara. I have Elsa Ferante on my to read list, but had forgotten about her. And Roma Tearne is new to me, but very apropos. I’m actually editing my WWII novel set in Italy , so when I looked her up just now I noticed Road to Urbino which sounds perfect for me to read. Thank you so much for your insightful comment 🙂
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  3. I have heard of Testament of Youth but not the other book – thanks for the recommendations! My favorite read from last year was Handbook for the Hopeless by Duke Miller and not because I was his “supposed” editor (long story here). It’s a surreal glimpse of the life of an aid worker which considering the current refugee crisis, is very timely.
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  4. Hmm I am now curious about The Paying Guest book. I have read several Christian books but no novels. I really need to find the time. Once my head hits the pillow at night; I am fast asleep. My two young children keep me busy!
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    • Being too tired to read has been part of my problem too, though I can imagine two young children would keep you busy. I don’t have that excuse. Actually Ive been sketching at night when i might have been reading. But I do miss not having read as much. I think we’re just in the mood for different things – so for you this year its been Christian books. Maybe next year you’ll have a little more time for novels too:-)
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  5. Paying Guests sounds especially interesting. My two favorite books of 2015 were Dead Wake and Station Eleven (which might have been from 2014 but I read it this year).

  6. Kathy, I’m going to check at the library for these books – I love books set during the early 1900’s. So much was happening in the world at that time – tragedies and triumphs – both make for interesting reading.
    Hope you have a memorable Holiday and the best of all New Years.
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    • Thanks so much Lenie I hope you too have a lovely Holiday season. It really is a fascinating period. Bizarrely, growing up in England, it was little talked about, perhaps because by my early childhood, things were very much overshadowed by WWII. So Ive been enjoying learning about that era on my own. I’d like to know more about it from an American perspective too.
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  7. Loved Paying Guest, although I don’t agree it is her best one yet…Sarah Walters doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong. Fingersmith was a remarkable novel . Not sure what my favourite book of 2015 was…like you I haven’t read as much as I would have likeed this year. I’ve just finished a WWII novel by Georges Simeon that has been out of print for 40+ years. The Train is about the early weeks of the fall of France and a chance love affair. The language is pared down & the emotion all the more intense because of it.

  8. Hi AK no i haven’t read them yet, but I will check them out. Thanks for the recommendations. ?
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  9. Hi Kathy: I haven’t read your recommended books, but appreciate the recommendations. Wishing you all the best for 2016, and a Happy Christmas.

  10. I haven’t read either book, but know your tastes and can trust I would enjoy both of them. Even though I tend not to gravitate toward books set during wars, I tend to like them nonetheless. I still need to read All the Light We Cannot See. This has been a slooowwww year for reading, but I’m aiming to pick up my pace in 2016. I LOVE the three coloring books I ordered too 🙂 See you in 2016.
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    • Oh I”m SO glad you liked the coloring books Jeri-wooho. Thats put a smile on my face:-)
      Yes we do have very similar taste across the board it seems, so I think you would like both of these. I’d been meaning to read Testament of Youth for years and then it came up in our bookgroup. funny how we’ve both been slow on reading this year – I really must make more time for it in 2016. Happy New Year!
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  11. I’ve never heard of either of these books but they look wonderful so thanks for sharing. I will definitely look them up on Amazon (no real bookstores in my area I’m afraid) for my holiday reading.
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  12. Thanks for sharing your review here of these 2 books. Paying Guests looks like I book I may be interested in reading. I’ve read quite a few, but not as many as I would have liked, books this year, and sadly, none really stand out in my memory. I’m itching to get to the same book as Jeri, ‘All The Light We Cannot See’, and Harper’s, ‘Go Set A Watchman’.
    Wishing you a very happy holiday season Kathy. See you back here in January. 🙂
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  13. As a writer myself, I am always fascinated by other author’s works.
    I have not had time to read these books yet, but your review has given me something to think about and make plans to read them next year.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  14. Thanks for the recommendations, A.K. I just looked on Amazon and you can buy both books at reasonable prices. I’m away for Christmas but they are on my calendar to get first week in January. Great reviews and apparently Brittain’s is considered a classic about WW I. I’ve always got a book I’m reading, but, as I’ve mentioned before, mostly mysteries which are fun and mindless. Some people meditate. I read mysteries but also the occasional “real” book. I enjoyed “The Girl on the Train” this year.

    I read the book several years ago but I highly recommend “Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story” by Amanda Vaill. It captures the essence of the post-WW I ex-pats living in Europe during the 1920s. Gerald and Sara Murphy held a sort of salon for young, starving artists and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc. Sara Murphy was the model for either Nicole or Rosemary (can’t remember which) in Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” and the Murphy’s literally invented the French Riviera as a summer resort.

    • Thanks for your comment Jeanette – I’ve been meaning to read “Girl on the train”, but haven’t got to it yet. The book you’re talking about re:Gerald & Sara Murphy sounds really interesting – and strangely familiar though I’ve not read it. Perhaps they made a film of it. But it’s a period that was a watershed moment in a lot of ways, and had been little talked about until of course the 100th anniversary of WWI memorial events last year in England. I hope you have a lovely break over the holidays & I’ll see you next year:-)
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