Book Review of “Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War” by various authors.
It isn’t often that a group of authors come together to make a collection of short stories. From what I can see, most collections with various authors are ones that a publisher collected, often from a slew of single-author collections. In this case, the publishers seem to have enlisted nine of their most talented historical fiction writers with a challenge – write a short story that includes both of these two elements: love and November 11, 1918.
The first element is, of course, a vast subject. The second, however – the end of WW1 – is far more specific. The combination of the two gives us something just right – focused stories that have the depth of different viewpoints. I already was familiar with the works of two of the contributing authors. One is Jessica Brockmole, whose debut novel “Letters from Skye” was one of my top five books of 2013. The other is Heather Webb, who was sweet enough to send me a copy of this book for this review. I thoroughly enjoyed Webb’s first novel “Becoming Josephine,” but her second novel, “Rodin’s Lover,” was even better and made it into my top five books of 2015. It was therefore no surprise that I loved both of their contributions to this collection.
Brockmole’s story “Something worth Landing for,” is about a man who meets an abandoned pregnant girl in France, and decides to marry her only hours before shipping off to finish his training as a fighter pilot. This story is told mostly through the letters she sends him, and the ones he wants to send back (she tells him not to write her), together with messages he sends to his mother to get the documents needed to finalize the marriage. The beauty, humor and originality of this story only prove that Brockmole is the epistolary queen of historical fiction, and I do hope she publishes another book soon!
Webb’s story, “Hour of the Bells,” is about Beatrix, a German woman whose true allegiance is to her chosen country – France. First, her husband dies in the war. Then she receives a letter telling her about her only son’s loss in one of the battles against the Germans. Overwhelmed with grief, she decides she must take revenge. Webb’s artistry here is inspiring, as she switches between giving us the history of this family, and the present action. The title of the story also reflects this, which encompasses both the fateful theme date, as well as the profession of Beatrix’s husband – who was a clock maker.
At the same time, as enjoying familiar writers, I also expected to discover new authors, and this collection didn’t disappoint. In fact, I have to say that there wasn’t even one story that I didn’t like. Each of them had a unique spin on the subject, with interesting plots, sympathetic characters, and the quality of the writing was top notch, bar none. That said, I must admit that I did have favorites among the seven stories by writers I hadn’t heard of until now.
Probably the most unusual of these was “The Photograph” by Kate Kerrigan. In this story, we see a side of this war that most people probably know the least about – the British in Ireland. Even as war raged on the western front against Germany, with British and Irish soldiers fighting side-by-side there, the declaration of the new Republic meant insurrections against the British in Ireland. This story is about a British soldier stationed near Dublin and the woman he falls in love with, who is technically his enemy. Although November 11 didn’t end the fighting in Ireland, it does come into play in this story, and very cleverly at that. This type of creativity was what made me pick out this story as one of the standouts of the book.
The other story that I found particularly exceptional, was “The Record Set Right,” by Lauren Willig. What surprised me with this story was how it starts in 1980. Willig begins with Camilla in Kenya and then going to England. The back-story takes place in England in 1915 as well as after the war has ended, and Camilla’s relationship with two brothers – Nicolas and Edward. This is a story of people separated by both the war, and a misunderstanding, where the pivotal date of the theme sits carefully in the background. In fact, Willig almost ignores November 11 in her story, which I found to be unique among the other stories that used this date more centrally. Instead, she places her characters at the forefront, with them both beautifully rendered, and carefully flawed.
Again, this isn’t to say that the other stories here are in any way inferior, but to write about them all would make this review too long, and these were my favorites. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for other works by Willig and Kerrigan, as well as keep all of the other authors in mind for future reads. This is also going on my permanent bookshelves, since I’m certain I’ll be reading these stories again and again (probably for the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1). In short, this is a marvelous collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it, with a full five out of five stars!
“Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War” is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, the website eBooks.com (where you can buy the collection or each of the stories separately), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank author Heather Webb for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.