Join me in my corner…

The world is dark and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.

Kate DiCamillo.

Suffragette City: Strong writers, strong leads

Inspired by Bookstagram and the hashtag #whoruntheworld, the following eight books are ones that I have enjoyed, and recommend unreservedly. But much more than this, they are books by brilliant female writers, featuring strong female characters. All characters, I may add, that I loved when reading them, and that will stay with me, I hope, forever. 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee ‘only’ published two books in her lifetime, but the magnificence of To Kill a Mockingbird will endure forever. It is one of the very few novels I have read more than once. It’s female lead, six year old Scout, is just fantastic, and I sooo wanted to name my baby girl after her! She is a very clever child with a questioning and combative nature who has her faith in humanity tested when her lawyer father defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. The story is known for its great warmth, despite its harsh themes of racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

With its similar time and place setting to To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel is also told from the perspective of a young girl, and tells of racism in its pages. Cassie Logan is the feisty but naive protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the unimaginable ugliness of prejudice in her community. Mildred D. Taylor tells Cassie’s story with skilfulness and beauty, describing Cassie’s happy home life with scrumptious detail, while refusing to shy away from the realities of racial inequality.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 

Is Jane Eyre the ultimate feminist heroine? Of course, that is subjective, but she is certainly a very strong character who endures much hardship and heartache, and always fights to preserve her sense of self. Charlotte Brontë wrote a formidable story and created a celebrated and timeless character in Jane Eyre – one which I will always love.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain is the seventeen year old narrator of this wonderfully enchanting novel. Her observations of her life in a dilapidated castle with her family and eccentric father, are charming and witty. Dodie Smith – a playwright and novelist, famous for writing One Hundred and One Dalmatians – created a book that had me totally captivated, at times in stitches, and that whooshed me away with its thrilling love story. It has one of the most famous opening lines in novels: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Fabulous.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I read this following the first couple of series of the television dramatisation by the same name. I fell in love with Vanessa Redgrave’s narration and wanted to discover the real Jenny. Jennifer Worth was a nurse who worked in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s, and recounted it all in a trilogy of memoirs of which Call the Midwife was the first. A harrowing read with great moments of elation, this book overflows with gorgeous prose and beautiful wisdom.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

My favourite of Maggie’s novels. Just one word needed: Motherhood.  Arguably the greatest challenge a woman faces, motherhood is the overriding theme of this book, and the reason why I am drawn to it so much. It’s a heartbreaking, touching novel by one of my most familiar writers. I saw myself again and again in this narrative and I will always recall the effect it had on me.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I loved this epic book. Donna Tartt is an amazing writer whose second novel – published a decade after her first – centres around Harriet, a twelve year old girl whose older brother was found hanged in their garden at the age of nine. The murderer has never been found and Harriet makes it her mission to solve the mystery of what happened and enact revenge on the killer. A fabulous read – enjoyed all the more because of its length – by a super talented American author. This is a novel to get your teeth well and truly stuck into.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 

Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian classic, for both it’s heroine and it’s author. If you’re not familiar with Anne (with an e) one way or another, where have you been? I read this book as a young teenager after falling completely and utterly and wholeheartedly in love with the 1985/7 TV serialisation. After the depiction of Anne Shirley by the stunning Megan Follows, I must admit I found the literary Anne to be quite annoying! But this is where the Megan Follows character came from and I soon began to appreciate this fact. Anne, like Jane Eyre, is an orphan who clambers her way up, making the best of what she’s got at any given time, and forges the way to make the life for herself that she really wants. Lucy Maud Montgomery writes consistently with compelling beauty and wisdom, creating and shaping the character of Anne so lovingly that she has become one of the most well loved literary characters of all time.

I know there are many more books like this that I have yet to find and adore, but, Reader, I will, I will. Who are your favourite female writers? Who are your favourite female leads?

For the Love of Tess: A review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

After wearing and wasting her palpitating heart with every engine of regret that lonely experience could devise, common sense had illuminated her. She felt that she would do well to be useful again – to taste anew sweet independence at any price. The past was the past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand. Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten. Meanwhile, the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.

I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for a reading challenge I did a couple of years ago. It was the book I selected that ‘intimidates you’. But, who wants to read a book that intimidates them? I thought. Not me. It probably means that the book is very long and written in old fashioned language; it’s hard work, a slog, tedious, boring. I read to enjoy, not to tear my face off. So, this was the part of the reading challenge that I was least looking forward to. I was undecided at which ‘boring’ book to read, and kept going from title to title. I settled on Tess because I genuinely wanted to attempt it, unlike some of the others on my radar. It fulfilled my criteria of being very long and old fashioned: in short, a ‘classic’. I am not really a classics reader, but I suppose the more you read them the more accustomed you become to them, and in turn, the more enjoyment you get from them. Well, that’s something for me to think about.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the most woeful book I have ever read. It got to the point where I was dreading turning the page because I knew things were just going to get worse and worse for Tess. Life does not treat this girl well. Hardy’s heroine is dignified and self effacing, and above all she is innocent – although the world doesn’t treat her that way. Her life consists of a series of injustices, and consequently it does not end well for her. Reading it made me feel very tense. There is little delight to get from the story, and I felt every one of Tess’s disappointments and knocks. For example, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and outraged when Angel, the man Tess is in love with (and he with her), lets her down spectacularly. What a hypocritical knob. Yet, it gives me a little kick to know that the author knew this, and treats him accordingly.

However, based solely on this book, I am a fan of Thomas Hardy. Why? First of all, Tess is a fantastic character and, despite what happens to her, it is very clear that Hardy was fond of his creation. The point of the story is to show that Tess was sinned against from all directions. She does suffer great oppression and wrongdoing, and she is the victim not the perpetrator. Is this a feminist novel? It seems to me it is, and this has my vote. Secondly, Hardy is a Victorian realist – depicting familiar, everyday things, activities and people. His angle is a critical one, highlighting, in his writing, the injustices he sees in his society. He is indeed, a bit of a Victorian Ken Loach, and I am all for the Ken Loaches of this world. Thirdly, his prose is lush. It’s not only what he has to say, but how is says it. His prose is infused with his tenderness, his sympathies, his wise and gentle criticism, and his affection for nature and the countryside. He knits words together beautifully to create a gorgeous flow of sagacity. Hardy does not yell or sensationalise. He knows what he’s talking about, and his story is filled with knowledge, experience and compassion.

I certainly recommend Tess to those that want to dip their toe in the classics waters. It is one of the more accessible classics, a trait much appreciated by a non-classics reader. However, the subject matter ensures that misogyny and injustice are rife, with tragedy and sadness following our heroine at every step. It resonates strongly with the present day: if a woman is raped, she is not blameless. Prepare to be depressed. Prepare to be angered.

Love is the Answer: A review of Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

On the next floor, Ephraim unlatched an old looking door.

‘This is where you’ll sleep,’ Ephraim said, pushing it open.

‘Gosh!’ I gasped. ‘I mean…wow!’

It was perhaps the nicest room I’d ever seen. For one thing, there was so much light. I counted at least six windows – little ones, arched at the top and set deep into the walls. Everything was painted white, even the floor. On either side of the room two beds hugged the curved lighthouse walls. Above each was a shelf of books from which hung beautiful, sea-blue lanterns.”

Firstly, I have to say that novels featuring lighthouses on the cover are irresistible to me. I love lighthouses, I love pictures of lighthouses and I love books about lighthouses. And Letters from the Lighthouse has an especially scrumptious one. I purchased this lovely little book purely based on…can you guess? – the lighthouse on the front. 

And now for the story…

The year is 1941 and young teenager Olive and her little brother Cliff know all about the devastation of war. They’ve already lost their dad, and now it looks like they’ve lost their sister Suki. Yet, Olive is convinced there is more to Suki’s disappearance than is believed. So when they are evacuated to the Devon coast, Olive makes it her mission to solve the mystery and find her sister.

I have a guilty enjoyment for Second World War stories in all formats – books, tv, films. It’s not the war that I am fond of, but the seemingly cosy era portrayed. Was it cosy? No of course not – there was a war on! – but people like to look back with nostalgia, and – I like to think – focus on moments of light in the dark. However, Letters from the Lighthouse doesn’t shy away from the grimness of the time, and a really strong theme of the book is the plight of refugees. I was surprised, but delighted, by this as I think it is an extremely important subject; one which is so close to my heart.  This is a book aimed at eight to twelve year olds, yet its message of empathy and acceptance is a great one for all ages (of course), and particularly appropriate in today’s abismal political climate. The young characters rally ‘round to ‘save the day’, and Olive, in particular, is a superb heroine for school-age readers. She is portrayed with innocence but also is shown to possess a strong sense of justice, and her strength and level-headedness gets her through some very tough times.

Emma Carroll writes simply but charmingly and with sophistication, creating a world you would want your children to share. So much thought has gone into the execution of this story and the message it sends. It is a joy to read and I will most definitely be reading more of her books in the near future. So, come on over and spend some time in her lighthouse.

‘That’s for what you’re doing to our boys.’ Mrs Wilcox spat at him. The other woman prodded him with her foot. The pilot pleaded, using words I didn’t know.  But he was sobbing – that I did understand. 

‘Don’t!’ I burst out. ‘He’s injured!’ 

Someone told me to be quiet.

Surprisingly, Mr Barrowman stuck up for me: ‘Olive’s right. We should do things properly and follow international law. Hand him over – ‘

‘Oh belt up, Mr Barrowman!’ snapped the fishermen who’d argued with Queenie yesterday. ‘The chap’s a German. When’ve they ever done anything properly, eh?’

Shouts of ‘Call the police!’ and ‘Give Jerry what for!’ rippled through the crowd. Yet still no one knew what to do. It infuriated me how Mr Spratt did nothing. He’d been so particular with Ephraim about the lighthouse, checking and double-checking the logbook,  yet now he very conveniently chose to look the other way.

I only hope that when Dad’s plane came down someone kind had found him, to hold his hand when he was hurting and tell him not to be scared. Better still if it’d been so quick he’d died before his plane hit the ground.

No, I wouldn’t keep quiet. I had a voice, and it was time to make some noise with it.

Luscious letters and luscious lighthouses

Hyped About Harry: A review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

I’m not one for hype, and this is the reason why I have not delved into the Harry Potter books before now. I prefer to be passionate about my own thing in my own time, and turn to things admired only by a few. We all have to have something that makes us feel distinct, and my thing is not to follow the trend of the moment. However, the time had come for me to judge for myself if all the hoo-har about Harry and the pandemonium about Potter is justified. Having read only the first book, I’m still on that journey of discovery, yet something tells me it only gets better…

For, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is good – very good. A magical themed book for children is not a new thing, and there is a huge reason for this: it works. Children want magic and fantasy and worlds where anything is possible, because this is their world. Didn’t you believe in fairies when you were younger? Didn’t you believe in Father Christmas? Didn’t you believe your dolls came to life at night? I did. And it works for us adults too. We don’t have those beliefs anymore, but we certainly have the memory of those beliefs. And nostalgia is a great pull. We want to escape to memories of a more open, more innocent time for us; we want to escape to that magical world we once believed in; and we want to escape to all those possibilities that at one time, could have come true. 

The Philosopher’s Stone is appealing in all its magical-ness, but also all its truthfulness too. The bond of friendship is a strong theme, along with the reality of loss and loneliness. Harry, now eleven, has been raised in a family that do not want him. He is unloved and neglected. His aunt and uncle, along with his cousin, couldn’t care less for him, and actively make his life woeful. Harry is banished to the cupboard under the stairs, he is given the bare minimum of the bare minimum, he is left out of family celebrations and trips, and he is subjected to bullying and ridicule. However, things are destined to change, as, unbeknownst to Harry, he is a wizard, whose loving wizard parents were killed at the hands of an evil wizard lord. He is a very special boy who will rediscover the world he came from by attending the great wizard school of Hogwarts. And so begins a new life for Harry. A life of enchantment and adventure. 

J K Rowling writes with expertise and confidence, adding humour from the very first page. Humour within a story – almost any story – indicates to me that the author knows exactly what they are doing and is comfortable in their role as storyteller. In turn, the reader feels comfortable going on the journey with the storyteller. There is no danger of the reader giving up on the book, for they know they are with an author that has meticulously planned where they are taking us and what we will see on the way. This is what I ask from every book I read; I need to feel that I am in safe hands – safe and talented hands. The last thing I want is to finish a book and think ‘Well, I probably could have done better than that myself…’ Rowling does not let me down.

This is a story that is loved and treasured by my generation and by the children of my generation. It will, no doubt, go on this way as long as the story continues to be published. Forget the hype and the baggage and make it all about the books, for they are there to simply be enjoyed…alone on a park bench, at night before sleep, in a cupboard under the stairs, on a train to Hogwarts… Now is the time to read Harry Potter . 

Innocent Creatures: A review of Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

She finds a rickety white bench, a little too close to the crumbling cliff edge. Pressing her bare feet down on the fine blades of grass, she shields her eyes with her hand and admires the cove below. It is like an illustration from a 1950s children’s book, lolly-shaped, nestled into jagged grey rocks, pristine and wild, its ruddy narrow beach path resisting easy access. She can imagine smugglers’ boats sliding onto the sand. She can imagine all sorts of things. It has an air about it, a sense of things having happened here.

Amber Alton and her siblings have the most wonderful life. Coming from a privileged family, they have the money and time to enjoy a care-free existence, spending every school holiday at the Alton’s delightful but crumbling country manor on the Cornish coast. Time slows almost to a halt in this blissful haven, and no one expects anything other than long dreamy days, lounging in and around the house. Yet, the unexpected happens  – a stormy night brings a tragedy that will change it all, and have the most devastating effects on this perfect family.

What can I say about Black Rabbit Hall? It is a wonderful read, stunningly and beautifully written with subtle imagery that touches and enchants. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a heartbreaking story, but there’s so much love and courage in there that, in a way, it’s diluted. Motherly love and loss are strong themes, and there’s a bit of attachment parenting going on, which I adore. It took me quite a long time to read because of life’s priorities, and I feel my enjoyment of it could have been greatly enhanced if I had had the time and freedom to read it over long sittings. It has so much to offer – a big house in the country, family drama, mystery, suspense, twists and turns – and this deserves to be savoured. 

A book such as Black Rabbit Hall is my go-to comfort read; the kind of book I read most of all. A novel told in a dual narrative, featuring a grand, or once grand, house, with a fragmented story to be pieced together and a historical mystery to be discovered – all intertwined with the cosy strands of British nostalgia. It lives up to expectations, and is guaranteed to satisfy, if you, like me, love this kind of big-house-full-of-secrets tale.

Giovanna and Me: A review of Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

Well, I really wanted this to work out. I wanted to love Giovanna Fletcher’s storytelling and go on to read her other books. I wanted our relationship to blossom and mature. Sadly, it is probably all over for us. Looking back, I should have known we weren’t compatible. There were quite obvious signs. The genre, for one. The ‘chick lit’ label leaves me dismayed – the name is derogatory and it is more than patronising in its implication that there is only one kind of literature that would appeal to women. Yet, the books in this particular group don’t seem to be that *good* – making me think Is that what chick lit means? Not very good? Which makes me quite agitated in all respects.

Billy and Me, whatever it’s labelled, is a mediocre book at best. The subject matter – a ‘plain’, unassuming young woman that meets and falls in love with a famous film star – is cliched and, admittedly, didn’t appeal to me very much at first glance.  The book is far too long for its flat writing style. It lacks description, it lacks meatiness, and it lacks the multi-diamentional characters a book deserves. 

Sophie, the protagonist, is nice enough, but not very unique, nor very interesting, nor very anything, except perhaps annoying in her self deprecation, and even more annoying in her self righteousness. There is one bizzare passage featuring a sex scene that Billy (of the title and Sophie’s famous boyfriend) has to act out with a fellow thespian and ex-girlfriend. It left me questioning Sophie’s – and Giovanna’s – judgement. Such a conservative and prudish attitude seems so outdated now, but more than this, Sophie’s unreasonableness is out of character for her level headedness up to that point. Even more strangely, the narrative doesn’t really question her perspective. Indeed, the whole stance of the book seems stuffy when it comes to sex. The narrative doesn’t refer to Sophie and Billy’s sex life at all, leading me to question Are they really doing it?  This is a silly question because of course they are, but there is no passion in the narration of their relationship, there is no sensuousness in the author’s words, there is no flirtation between the characters, and consequently no flirtation or chemistry with the reader. The tenderness of love is there, yes, but the salaciousness of a physical relationship is not. Is this novel aimed at the young romantic teen? It certainly feels this way in its demure demeanor and uncluttered, unflowery writing style.

Billy and Me disappoints mainly because the picture it paints is not rich or distinct enough. I love a book that makes me disappear into its unique world. I need to be wooed with enchanting and poetic prose. I need to be shown something I have never experienced before, and told something I have never heard before. I need those sweet whispers of promise that the journey I am taking holds excitement or adventure or surprise. Billy may have whisked Sophie away, but Giovanna has left me standing – alone and apathetic, and ready to move on.

Meet Ma Precious Ramotswe: A review of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first in a series of books of the same name. It was first published in 1998 to huge acclaim and is followed by a total of nineteen books to date. They feature Mma Precious Ramotswe, the 30-something proprietor of Botswana’s only woman led private detective agency. The series begins with Mma Ramotswe finding her feet as a sleuth. She sets up the business with money her shrewd and devoted father left her on his death. She takes inspiration from the great Agatha Christie, and, even though doubts about her choice of profession creep in now and again, she finds the work thrilling and suited to her abilities. 

The protagonist is lovingly created and crafted by Alexander McCall Smith, an African born British academic and author, now residing in Scotland. His picture of Mma Ramotswe is so vivid that one could question how he – a middle aged white man – could write a young African woman so well. It is very clear that he is an astonishingly talented writer and storyteller. It is such a beautifully written book, perfectly executed, and with humour abounds. The humour within these pages is magnificent, usually centering around the character of men and how useless they are to women. Damaging, in fact. Indeed, parts of the book touch on very sinister subjects, none more so than towards the end of the story. I was not expecting this, as, by all accounts, it is a cheerful read, but McCall Smith continues the story in his wonderfully loose, gentle, and optimistic style, rendering it fitting that these subjects should indeed be covered in this African narrative.

I am very excited to continue on Mma Ramotswe’s journey with her. It is such a lovely, engrossing and evocative series. Highly recommended to those that wish to be transported to the heat and happy heart of Africa, and uplifted by McCall Smith’s wonderful and mischievous prose.

A beautiful, heart warming read