Category Archives: War

Things a Bright Girl Can Do

We’ve recently celebrated the centenary of [some] British women winning the right to vote. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a start.

Sally Nicholls has written a suffragette novel – Things a Bright Girl Can Do – and as we meet her three main female characters, well-off Evelyn, educated but threadbare May and working class Nell, many of us know that very soon there will be a war, and this won’t be exclusively about the rights for women to vote.

Sally Nicholls, Things a Bright Girl Can Do

We learn a lot about the suffragette movement – and I was reminded of why I always liked Sylvia Pankhurst the best – as our three girls go about campaigning for votes for women in their own different ways. What I particularly liked was that they have sympathetic people close to them; Evelyn’s young man, Teddy, May’s single mother, and Nell’s [literally] very poor parents.

And it’s not just votes for women. May and her mother are Quakers, and both Nell and May like girls best, discovering that they aren’t alone in this. Then there is the lovely Teddy, and the threat of the looming war.

After a quick march through protests and fasting in jail, war breaks out, and it’s much tougher than the way it’s usually described in fiction. Yes, young men go off to be slaughtered, but life in England is really hard, especially for people like Nell and her family, who have no money and little food, and someone is always unwell. Trying to remain a true Quaker is not easy, either, at a time when everyone seems to give up their principles for their country.

The novel is written in the same light style as Sally’s other books, and it works, despite the difficult topics of suffrage, war, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. In fact, I feel it works better for having this sweetness about it, as the reality of the war years hits home.

You come to love these characters, and you discover that death isn’t necessarily the worst thing that could happen.

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Purple Hearts

And then I cried.

I was sad to get to the end of Michael Grant’s Front Lines trilogy, because now there is no more to read. But I was glad the war was finally over. Not everyone survived, because that’s the thing with wars; people don’t.

Michael Grant, Purple Hearts

Purple Hearts, along with Front Lines and Silver Stars, will count among the best I’ve read. It’d be easy to dismiss this fast paced WWII trilogy as pure entertainment, but it is so much more. For a start, what makes it stand out is the use of women soldiers, alongside the men.

Michael makes a stand for equality, for men and women, for black and white, for ‘real’ Americans and for those others who fought by their side.

The Front Lines books teach us history. There was much I didn’t know. It’s given us rounded and interesting characters – I even grew fond of Private Sweetheart in the end – and it tells us how stupid, and evil, people have always been, and will continue to be, but that there is good in so many of us.

You have to care. And in order for us to care about those who had to die, Michael shows us, however briefly, what they are like. This way we mourn their deaths. Otherwise it’d be like it ended up being for those worn out GIs, who didn’t learn the names of new soldiers, on the grounds that they wouldn’t last long.

Starting in June 1944 we first fight on Omaha Beach. It didn’t take me long to realise Michael was making a detour via Oradour for one of our heroes. Mercifully it was quick (I have read a whole book about it), as was Malmedy (which I didn’t know about). And the concentration camps… Brief is almost better, with one major atrocity after another, the reader is with the GIs as the European continent is – slowly and painfully – conquered.

My guess as to which of the main characters was ‘writing’ all this down was correct. My hope for some of the more romantic elements worked out. We need hope.

I could go on. Purple Hearts is an inspiring read.

We could have done with women like these a long time ago.

And I [almost] blubbed over one name. Diane. It’s continuity like that which makes a story.

(The cover image is the American one. I prefer it, and as I read this as an ebook, there was no cover to call mine.)

Helped by love

It made a great impression on the young Bookwitch. During those years when I devoured [almost] everything I found on the shelves at home, I came across this book, the title of which I no longer remember. While it looked a little boring, I read it nevertheless, and discovered that it was actually very good. Very romantic. And I know I re-read it later on, as I always thought of it as a ‘proper book.’

Older and wiser, I discovered when looking at it again, that it had originally been published by Mills & Boon. Oh dear. Well, I had known no better. But it just went to prove that translating a book and giving it a cover that doesn’t hint at anything light or lurid, makes it look like a real novel.

Written by Mary Burchell (pen name) it featured a young secretary who tricked her boss to marry her. Obviously for all the right reasons, but he didn’t know that at the time. Being an honourable man, he did the honourable thing and married her, once she had been compromised (via a conveniently ‘faulty’ door handle). You can tell how much I remember, even this long after!

Anyway, they obviously fell in love. There were one or two misunderstandings, as there should be. It ended happily. One detail I often think of is how our heroine is chauffeur-driven to wave her new husband off as he travels the world on business, departing by boat from Southampton. The kindly chauffeur covers her with a travel rug, so she won’t feel the cold…

‘So where am I going with this?’ I hear you ask.

There was a short letter in the Guardian last week, telling us about the real Mary Burchell. She was really Ida Cook, and with her sister Mary Louise, she rescued refugees in the 1930s, financing the operation with money from writing those romances.

I now feel really proud of my early Mills & Boon author. I’m glad she did so well with her over one hundred romances, and that she used the money for a good cause. And I’ve never felt apologetic about reading that old, nameless, book. I enjoyed it, and it left a lasting impression on me. (Something which can’t be said of the countless romances I consumed at a later stage.)

And as the writer of the letter said, who’d have thought that eighty years later we’d still need Safe Passage?

(I believe it was Wife to Christopher, from 1936.)

The ones I enjoyed the most

It suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s unwise to say anything about best books. Because this time of year I usually list the ones I liked the most, which isn’t the same thing.

And by the time December rolls round I often despair. Yes, I remember that marvellous book I read recently. This year that was La Belle Sauvage. Because it was recent. Longer ago and my memory blacks out, in much the same way as when someone asks what I did at the weekend…

No need to worry though. Out of the 137 books (2017 wasn’t the best year for finding reading time), the twelve that emerged more victorious than the rest, were closely followed by quite a few other excellent contenders.

Best of 2017

I’ve not picked a best of all, nor am I doing the alphabetical order.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

LA Weatherly, Black Moon

Joan Lennon, Walking Mountain

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

Joanna Nadin, The Incredible Billy Wild

Anthony McGowan, Rook

Phil Earle, Mind the Gap

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer’s Ape

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Patrick Ness, Release

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

And as you can see, the 2017 colour for book covers is primarily black with some blue and teal. Rather like last year, in fact. I appear to have picked six women and six men, which feels nice and equal.

There is only one translated book, but there are two dyslexia friendly books, plus one prequel, one equel, one end of a trilogy and one middle of a trilogy. And two Scottish books. All good.

Books like these are what makes it all worth it.

Memorial

The trouble with time is that it passes. When I was younger I felt it completely natural that soldiers from WWI were still alive. Now it is the people who fought in WWII who are barely still with us. What was once very big, ceases to have relevance to new generations. Whatever it is, it feels hard for those who do remember; that the thing that changed their lives so completely gets relegated to the history books.

Gary Crew and Shaun Tan, Memorial

In Gary Crew’s book Memorial, with illustrations by Shaun Tan, this is evident. It is not a new book, but a re-issued classic, almost. First published in 1999 it shows us a young boy who visits his (Australian) town’s memorial to The Big War with his great grandfather, and the personal memories this man still has, of those who fought with him, and those who didn’t come home. And of the planting of a tree next to the statue.

Then we meet his son, the boy’s grandfather, with his own memories of the next war. And the boy’s father, who was in Vietnam. A lot has happened under the tree; at the various homecomings, but also in everyday life.

The trouble is that the tree has grown quite big, and its are roots damaging the road, which by now is much busier than it was. And the council wants to remove it.

Can you remove a Shrine of Remembrance?

Or is there something else that people remember you by?


Reading this book now, another 18 years have passed, and the kind of family continuity it describes is no longer possible. Soon this boy will be able to tell the story to another generation, but it will be someone who hasn’t met the former soldiers.

Black Moon

Well!

What a book Black Moon is! The end of the trilogy Lee Weatherly set in her new dystopic 1940s, two thousand years in the future, after us Ancients caused the world to be destroyed by doing so many things wrong.

Mistakes are there to be repeated. Now that Kay Pierce has taken over the country and is busy killing anyone not to her liking, plus quite a few more while she’s at it, things look grimmer than ever. And the more you read you realise that this is WWII all over again. Just in a different place and with new people taking the place of those in our war. But the mistakes are the same and the consequences also.

And I believe this is what makes it so interesting, giving the reader a chance to look at what is the same but different. And to see how people still make the same mistakes despite knowing the fate of the Ancients all those years ago.

I’d been concerned about the love interest not taking a wrong turning, but there is of course always the problem with loving in a war to contend with. Who will survive?

Amity is a marvellous heroine and she is surrounded by great friends and lovers, and say what you want about President Pierce but she makes for a formidable enemy. Reading this third book made me marvel even more over the fact that Lee wrote it before the recent Presidential election, and still got it spot on.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough. It’s the kind of read that makes you glad to be a reader and grateful that some good books are still published. I don’t – now – want more of this, but I do crave more wow-factor books. 650 pages can go so fast when you are having a fantastic time.

Flesh and Blood

‘How scary can it be?’ I asked myself. ‘It’s a book for young children, after all.’ I was looking at the cover of Chris Priestley’s new book for Barrington Stoke, which shows a bandaged head, with just a hole for one eye. It’s an excellent cover. If you want to be scared witless.

Chris Priestley, Flesh and Blood

I took the precaution of not reading it at night, when the Resident IT Consultant was away. But I felt a bright afternoon would be OK. As OK as a book by Chris ever will be, I mean.

It’s really very nicely old-fashioned, in a way. Set during WWII Bill and his sister Jane seem like model children. If it weren’t for the fact that Bill would rather have a brother, which he wishes for during an air raid. And then, he sort of gets one, because they end up ‘adopting’ a young boy his own age who is found severely injured in a deserted and spooky house, and who seems to have no one.

Well, anyway, you know as well as I do that you should be careful what you wish for.

Bill feels uncomfortable, and so does his mother, and his sister. And then, one day those bandages come off…

Yeah, not sure that the bright afternoon was enough.