What I’ve been reading… May 2020

With the country still in lockdown (level 4, they’ve now labelled it),May turned out to be pretty much April round 2. The big drop in my reading time this month had two culprits: I was teaching from home for most of the month, and we had loads of sunshine and so I spent a lot of time in the garden.

At the start of the month, I posted in my Facebook reading group, ‘Lost in a Good Book’, that I fancied reading something set in the 1920s next, and asked for recommendations. From all of the suggestions that were put forward, two books sounded the most interesting to me, ‘The Blue Bench’ and ‘Things a Bright Girl Can Do’.

‘The Blue Bench’ by Paul Marriner

The author of this book ‘cheekily’ (his word, not mine) suggested that I read this book, which is set in 1920 and tells the story of a group of young people in Margate during the summer season and the impact that war had on them.

There are four main characters in this book: Edward and William, who have returned from fighting on the front, and Evelyn and Catherine, who are young women waiting to begin their adult lives. I really liked all four of these characters, all of whom were penned realistically with strengths and flaws to each of them.

This is not a comforting read, and it does not shy away from the realities of this post-war era, with all characters in the novel having been affected in different ways. It is a novel with loss, pain and a little hope at the centre of it, but the relationships and period details make this such an interesting read. I especially enjoyed reading about the concert hall and pubs.

One of the central themes of this novel is the prevalence of both physical and mental health issues, which are experienced by so many of its characters. One hundred years on, some things have, thankfully, changed so much about how we treat people with disabilities, and some not enough. Marriner is a sympathetic author, yet stops short of being patronising about his character’s trials.

I don’t think that I’ve ever given much thought to the grave of The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, when it was placed in its final resting place, or how the British public may have reacted at the time. In ‘The Blue Bench’, we hear about the letter-writing campaigns, the planning committees, the welcoming parade and the ceremony which brought the body home. I was fascinated to see how different characters react to the proposal, and walk with them as they view the grave for the first time. Deeply moving.

‘Sh*t My Dad Says’ by Justin Halpern

If you want a light-hearted read that’s split into short, anecdotal chapters, then this might be the book for you. It’s okay, but it’s not going to be the best thing you’ve ever read – it’s not going to be the book that you pass on to your grandchildren.

It’s very American, very teenagery (certainly a real word) and very sweary. I read it at lunchtimes on my iPad when the kids didn’t want to speak to me and it filled 5 minutes at a time.

‘Things a Bright Girl Can Do’ by Sally Nichols

The second of the book group recommendations, this is a Young Adult novel about the Suffragettes, the Suffragists, and the impact of the First World War on both of these movements. And a very fine read it was as well!

I learnt a lot from this book, and was reminded of lots that I’d forgotten about. I learnt about the Suffragists, who were against the violent methods used by the Suffragettes, about the refusal of some women to pay taxes until they had the vote, and about the roles of Quakers at the advent of war.

In this novel, we meet Evelyn, who is rich, clever and has ambitions of attending university. We watch as she joins the Suffragettes and becomes fully immersed in their campaigns whilst her fiancé goes off to fight in France. We meet May and her mother – Quakers who are keen to improve the position of women through peaceful means – and May’s girlfriend, Nell, who has different ideas about how to get her voice heard.

I really enjoyed the contrast between the characters in this novel. There are poor and rich, fighters and pacifists, homemakers and intellectuals. The characters changed and grew as the war progressed, and there are some really good role models here for teenagers to read about.

It is regrettable that only girls seem to read books about the struggle for women’s rights, and it would be really nice to think that some boys may also benefit from Young Adult novels like this. Can you imagine if only males ever read books about what it was like to fight in the First World War, purely because most of the characters would be male? What a lot of knowledge women would miss out on.

‘An Echo in the Bone’ by Diana Gabaldon

At 46 hours long, there’s a good reason why this is the only audiobook that I listened to in May. You get great value for money with Outlander audiobooks, and I do tend to purchase them in order to stretch out by Audible credits to last longer than the average novel.

This is the 7th book in the ‘Outlander’ series, and my favourite book boyfriend, Jamie Fraser, is now in his mid 60s.

It’s 1777 and we’re in North Carolina as the American Rebellion grows in intensity. I’ve followed Jamie and his Sassenach, Claire (a time-travelling doctor) from the Jacobite Rebellion and Culloden, to the French Revolution and now the American War of Independence. If I’m honest, I lost interested in most of historical backdrop as soon as they touched shore in America, but the characters are interesting, even if the plots get more ridiculous the further into the series you get. I’ve invested a full fortnight of my life listening to these, but I’m not sure if this is the end of the road for me now.

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