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The First of July: A Novel
     

The First of July: A Novel

4.0 2
by Elizabeth Speller
 

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A captivating novel of the tragedies of war, as lives cross, dreams are shattered, and futures altered as the hours pass during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.On July 1st, 1913, four very different men are leading four very different lives.
Exactly three years later, it is just after seven in the morning, and there are a few seconds of peace as the

Overview

A captivating novel of the tragedies of war, as lives cross, dreams are shattered, and futures altered as the hours pass during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.On July 1st, 1913, four very different men are leading four very different lives.
Exactly three years later, it is just after seven in the morning, and there are a few seconds of peace as the guns on the Somme fall silent and larks soar across the battlefield, singing as they fly over the trenches. What follows is a day of catastrophe in which Allied casualties number almost one hundred thousand. A horror that would have been unimaginable in pre-war Europe and England becomes a day of reckoning, where their lives will change forever, for Frank, Benedict, Jean-Batiste, and Harry.
Elizabeth Speller once again sublimely captures the dangerously romantic atmosphere of war-torn Europe in her latest novel that will leave critics and readers astounded.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
08/12/2013
This well-told, well-plotted war epic from British novelist Speller (The Return of Captain John Emmett) tracks the life experiences of four disparate Allied soldiers fighting in the bloody Battle of the Somme. Jean-Baptiste Mallet is a French blacksmith apprentice who leaves his village for Paris; Benedict Chatto is a talented British music student and organist; Harry Sydenham is a British entrepreneur residing in New York City with his American wife, Marina; and the methodical Frank Stanton is a carpenter and coffin maker in London with an enthusiasm for racing bicycles. Each young man is swept into the First World War’s maelstrom and serves in a different capacity: Frank’s duty as a cyclist messenger is perhaps the most colorful and dangerous. Harry plans to join the American army later in the conflict before he reconsiders and follows his family’s tradition of military service, enlisting as an officer. Benedict is commissioned as an artillery officer, and Jean-Baptiste is an infantry grunt manning the grim frontline trenches on the Somme. He is injured, transported to a field hospital, and spared any direct involvement when the offensive is launched. The four soldiers encounter each other on occasion, while the stark battlefield scenes evoke Hemingwayesque realism in Speller’s unsentimental, always engaging literary war narrative. (Nov.)
STARRED REVIEW Booklist
“Utterly gripping and completely immersing. As the war progresses, the soldier's stories converge in a pointillist portrait of the trench-riddled landscape and those upon whose frail shoulders the battle depends. Gritty, disturbing, moody, and intensely real, the novel’s psychological impact is like those of Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and asks readers to consider war’s high costs. Great book-club fare.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“An elegant, moving read.”
The Boston Globe
“Intriguing. A captivating wartime whodunit.”
The Wall Street Journal

Praise for the novels of Elizabeth SpellerSpeller combines a Ruth Rendell-like psychological realism and a Dickensian feel for life's roulette.

Library Journal
★ 11/01/2013
After publishing two well-received mysteries set just after World War I (The Return of Captain John Emmett; The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton), Speller sets her latest work during the war itself, taking the title from the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1914—a day marked by catastrophic losses. The book follows the intersecting lives of four men, three English and one French, from the lead-up to the war until the fateful day of the battle. Speller has written a truly beautiful novel that deals frankly with the horrible realities of war while affirming the perseverance of love and compassion even in the most terrible of circumstances. Each of the four narrative threads is compelling, and the author manages the occasional intersections of the plotlines with a deft hand that keeps those intersections from feeling gimmicky or overly sentimental. VERDICT As unforgettable as Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, this highly recommended title will be savored by historical fiction fans. It deserves a prominent spot in any collection of fiction about the Great War.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-01
The catastrophic Battle of the Somme, at the center of World War I, is seen through the eyes of four fighting men whose destinies interconnect, in a sensitive addition to the fiction of the Great War. Although formulaic in structure, British writer Speller's (The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, 2012, etc.) third novel nevertheless offers an affecting account of tragic events. Her four Allied combatants include French blacksmith Jean-Baptiste Mallet; two Englishmen, shopworker and bicycle fanatic Frank Stanton and music student Benedict Chatto; and Brit-turned–American industrialist Harry Sydenham. Opening in 1913, Speller presents conventional panoramas of London, Paris, New York and rural life at a time of strict class boundaries. Jean-Baptiste is a laborer; Stanton is in trade; Chatto has a privileged education; but Harry is the loftiest of them all, a baronet, even though he has run away from his roots to start again in the U.S. Harry's secrets, Benedict's half-acknowledged homosexuality and Jean-Baptiste's betrayal of a suspected spy propel the narrative through the outbreak of war and the men's establishment in differing fighting ranks and roles. And then the great, misconceived battle arrives, a failed attack on an inconceivable scale which drives the men forward to fate, truth, irony and even hope. By foregrounding, with poetic intensity, four individual experiences, Stiller implicitly acknowledges the countless who fought in WWI. A well-crafted tribute.
starred review Booklist

Utterly gripping and completely immersing. As the war progresses, the soldier's stories converge in a pointillist portrait of the trench-riddled landscape and those upon whose frail shoulders the battle depends. Gritty, disturbing, moody, and intensely real, the novel’s psychological impact is like those of Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and asks readers to consider war’s high costs. Great book-club fare.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781605984971
Publisher:
Pegasus Books
Publication date:
11/14/2013
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
729,549
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Speller studied Classics at Cambridge University. She is the author of The First of July, The Return of Captain John Emmett, and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. She lives in England.

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The First of July: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
joseph_spucklerJS More than 1 year ago
The First of July by Elizabeth Speller is a novel that examines the lives of four men leading up to the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Speller has lived throughout western Europe and currently splits her time between Gloucestershire and Greece. She has written for The Independent, Financial Times, Vogue, and Big Issue. This is her third novel.  I spend quite a bit of time reading World War I books, from Ernest K Gann's In the Company of Eagles which started me in my early teens to Paul Jankowski's Verdun in my current to read pile. I find it an extremely interesting subject and something that has driven almost everything in the twentieth century. I have stayed away from World War I fiction because I found it too easy to nit-pick and there is plenty of poetry to show the more human side of the war. Nevertheless, I gave The First of July a try.  The story follows four men starting in July 1913, three years before the start of the Battle of the Somme. Jean-Baptiste Mallet is a blacksmith leaves his home of Corbie, France before before the war; he is disenchanted with recent events in his town. Frank Stanton found his way to London when he was nineteen. He is a carpenter and made coffins before arriving in London. Frank becomes a store clerk and dreams of owning a quality bicycle. He has follows the Tour d' France and the racers. Frank and his friend dream about bicycle touring. Benedict Chatto is from Gloucester is a music man and spends time with his friend Theo. Harry Sydenham lives in New York and is marrying Marina. Harry is British and has fled his home land keeping with him secrets he chooses not to share, even with his wife.  Speller takes these four men and shows the reader how the war will change the lives of all classes of people as the characters lives intertwine. Theo convinces Benedict to join the artillery with him, but no sooner does Benedict sign up, Theo signs on to be a pilot. Frank has no real desire to fight in a war once his friend Dick, who owns a fine Hercules bicycle, dies in the war. Benedict, meets Frank and suggest he join a cyclist brigade. That seemed to be a perfect tribute to his departed friend. On a personal level I was drawn in by Frank and his love of bicycles. The men's stories are interesting and provide a realistic look into their personal lives and the personal issues their faced or kept secret. The book also gives a feel for the general feeling of the populations in France, Britain, and the United States.  The First of July is an excellent World War I novel. It focuses on the main characters and their families and give a nice human element to the war. The novel ends on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This was the bloodiest battle of the war. For five months the battle went on and produced a million casualties. The British alone suffered 60,000 casualties on a single day, the July 1st. The story is interesting enough so I never had a chance to nit-pic or notice any historical inaccuracies. It is truly enjoyable to find a work of fiction that fits so well into an area of study mine.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago