Must-reads

She is Fierce, edited by Ana Sampson

I really don’t read as much poetry as I think I should, usually preferring to opt for a novel to read instead, but when I saw this collection of women’s poetry, I knew I wanted to read it.

“Words

Can seriously affect your heart”

From ‘This Poem…’ by Elma Mitchell

And what a treat it is. Inside there is a wide selection of poems by women from across time, spanning continents and with varying themes. The collection is broken up into thematic sections and can either be read straight through, as I did, or dipped in and out of.

There are some wonderful poems here, some very familiar to me, and some that I’d never read before, but that I know I will definitely read again. Particular favourites for me were ‘How to Cut a Pomegranate’ by Imtiaz Dharker, ‘Fiere’ by Jackie Kay, and ‘For Forest’ by Grace Nichols. Poetry also has an amazing ability to conjure strong emotions and Anne Bronte’s poem ‘Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day’ really spoke to me with its line “I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing” – I really want to see the sea again (I am aware that in the grand scheme of things, this is very low down the scale of importance, but it is something that I do miss at the moment).

The whole section on courage, protest and resistance is particularly brilliant, with poems from women speaking out in protest of slavery, war, oppression. The poems are strong and brave… and I love the fact that the cover of the collection reflects this boldness by being neon orange – it certainly stands out!

Well worth a read, there is a poem here for everyone.

Award winners/nominees, Historical fiction, Must-reads

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

I don’t think it can be very often that you begin a book while living in one kind of world, and finish it in another. On the day my copy of The Mirror & The Light was delivered, I spent the evening at the theatre (watching an amazing performance of Macbeth). Less than a month later and everything has changed; we are in the midst of a global pandemic, theatres are closed, only essential travel is allowed.

Reading can be a great way to clear the mental clutter and distract yourself during times of stress; it’s important, I think, to have somewhere to escape to, even if just for ten minutes. I’ve read The Mirror & The Light far more slowly than I would in normal circumstances, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a great book.

The story itself is the final part in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, which follows the life of Thomas Cromwell. I’d definitely suggest reading both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies first before reading The Mirror & The Light. This final installment picks up after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and follows Cromwell’s journey as Henry VIIIs advisor right up until the very end, when Cromwell falls out of favour and faces his own execution.

One thing that I love about this story is that right from the start it developed the ominous feeling that everyone’s life is hanging in the balance. As Chapuys says to Cromwell:

‘Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.’

Mantel’s use of present tense adds to this feeling of fear and danger. It is like we live every moment with the characters, only able to think of the present moment.

‘It is a crime to envisage the future. We are trapped in the hour we occupy ‘

Margaret Pole says this to Cromwell and heightens the sense that we, the reader, are trapped within this moment too.

As with the previous two novels, Mantel’s novel is a joy to read, every sentence is one to be read carefully and enjoyed. It is not a quick read (at over 870 pages long) but it is one that is thought-provoking, making the reader constantly consider the careful balance of power within those who circulated around the Tudor royalty.

Award winners/nominees, Must-reads

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I’ve seen this book recommended numerous times, but have only just got around to reading it. Earlier this year I read Miller’s second book Circe, also based on Greek mythology, and really enjoyed it.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the story of Greek hero Achilles, culminating in his role within the siege of Troy. The story is told from the point of view of his companion and lover, Patroclus. Patroclus is a prince himself, who is exiled and sent to live with Achilles’ father. When Achilles is sent to the centaur Chiron to be educated, Patroclus follows him, refusing to be separated from Achilles. The perfect life they enjoy there is broken by the news of war with Troy. Agamemnon seeks out warriors to battle against the Trojans, who have taken the wife of Menelaus, Helen. Achilles is said to be the greatest soldier ever to exist, but is also prophesied to die at Troy, so his mother, the goddess Thetis, hides him. Ultimately, fate cannot be stopped, and Patroclus follows Achilles into the battle.

This was a well written and interesting story, covering a wide period of time (the siege of Troy lasting many years). Achilles’ story is tragic, like that of so many Greek heroes, and his character is complex. This is as much a love story as a story of war and adventure, and telling it from Patroclus’ viewpoint gives us a different perspective from the traditional retellings of Greek myths: there is no glorification of battle, but sorrow at the tragedy of loss. Telling it from this viewpoint allows the reader to see the consequences of a world in which becoming a legend is more valued than life itself. The love story between Patroclus and Achilles is powerful and heart-breaking at times.

A really fantastic book, and one which I didn’t want to put down, I highly recommend this book.

Must-reads

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Back in November, I read the fantastic Little Fires Everywhere, so it only seemed natural to want to read Celeste Ng’s first novel: Everything I Never Told You.

The story is set in the 1970s and begins with the death of teenager Lydia, the favourite child in her family. It then reaches back into the past, exploring the youth of her parents: her mum Marilyn who wanted to be a doctor, despite her mother’s insistence that she find a good husband (and ultimately her dream ending), and her dad James, who always felt excluded by society and ridiculed because of his Chinese heritage. It also explores Lydia’s relationship with her mother and father, and her siblings. What started out as clear and obvious (that Lydia was incredibly intelligent and popular) soon comes into question, as the reader realises that Lydia was not what either of her parents wanted her to be. This novel also considers the racial tension faced by a mixed race family in 1970s America, and the difficulties faced by both the parents and children within the Lee family

This story is sad, and moving. The characters are well developed and it is the characterisation in this novel that really drives the story. We come to know the Lee family in real depth, and certainly far better than they knew each other. It is certainly a book that explores the weight of parental expectations. A book that I would thoroughly recommend, and one that I will remember for a long time.

Must-reads, Non-fiction

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

I very rarely read non-fiction, preferring instead to read novels, but I saw quite a lot of publicity about The Five online and knew I wanted to read it.

Hallie Rubenhold tells the stories of the five victims of Jack the Ripper: not the stories of what happened to them as they died, but the stories of their lives.

She details the lives of each victim, from childhood to a life of poverty in London’s East End. In each case it becomes clear that the world was always weighted against them as working class women, but also that with a small change in circumstances their lives could have worked out differently. Rubenhold pieces together the evidence about each woman’s life, showing the reader details of their every day existence.

This was a fantastic book; it brings to life each victim’s own story. Rubenhold is clear that she wants to break down the notion of the victims being ‘just prostitutes’ for two reasons: firstly, there is no evidence of several of the women engaging in prostitution, but secondly because over the years the classification of the victims has such has been used to dehumanise them. Rubenhold shows us that each woman lived a life that was defined by many other aspects.

A fascinating book, especially for anyone interested in the experiences of life for the working classes in 19th Century London.

Award winners/nominees, Must-reads

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is a book I contemplated buying several times over the summer, but put it off in favour of others. I can only say that this was a massive mistake because it was fantastic.

Shaker Heights is the perfect American suburb, where everyone lives their lives according to the rules, especially the Richardson family. Things are shaken up by the arrival of artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. Pearl befriends the Richardson children and they find themselves drawn together. When Mia sides with the Chinese woman battling to regain custody of her baby, who is being adopted by one of the Richardsons’ friends, Elena Richardson becomes determined to find out exactly why Mia is so secretive.

I loved this story. It was fast paced and engaging, with plenty of drama. I quite liked the balance between the adults and the teenagers, and perhaps because I was a teen myself in the 90s (when the book is set), it really resonated with me. Characters make mistakes, secrets are kept and relationships are strained. The characters never become one-dimensional though, and I stayed up late into the night to finish this fantastic story.

Must-reads

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand? I’ve been so lonely!

Helen Franklin lives a lonely life in Prague, denying herself sources of joy because twenty years ago she did something she cannot forgive herself for. One of her few friends, Karel, introduces her to a dreadful story that he has been looking into: that of Melmoth, the woman who denied seeing Christ resurrected and who is cursed to walk the earth forever, bearing witness to mankind’s atrocities, and seeking out companions to ease her loneliness.

The story centres around Helen, but also draws on a range of narratives from throughout history, recounting various encounters with Melmoth the wanderer, a woman dressed in black, with bleeding feet, who waits and comes to those who have witnessed terrible events throughout history. As Helen reads these she is haunted by the characters she meets through their narratives, and cannot shake the thought that someone is watching, waiting, just out of view.

I’ve read both of Perry’s previous novels and enjoyed her narrative style immensely; this is no different for Melmoth. I began by racing through the pages but soon slowed down to enjoy fully the beautiful imagery created, and the complex, haunting storyline. I particularly appreciated the historical accounts included; the account of Josef Hoffman was particularly powerful, but perhaps the one that was most moving was the story of Nameless and Hassan.

A powerful, well-told, gothic story, Melmoth was just the right side of scary for me (although I won’t be looking out of any dark windows after reading this story!). A book I would highly recommend.

Must-reads

Three Things About Elsie

Before I say anything else about this book, I’m going to mention that I absolutely loved it! It was one of those books that I couldn’t put down and I would highly recommend it: it’s sad, funny, moving, mysterious.

Florence is 84 and has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Court home for the elderly. As she waits for someone to find her and fetch help, her mind wanders over the events of the past few months, prompted by the arrival of a man she thought had died in the 1950s. With the help of her childhood best friend Elsie, and a new friend from the care home, Jack, she has tracked down exactly what happened all those years ago. However, when your memory is not what it used to be, and you’re on probation for a move to another home, this is not an easy task. Their investigations take them all the way to Whitby, but it is in Florence’s own mind that the truth really lies.

I loved so many things about this story. The sections with Florence waiting for help after her fall were so sad, and reminded me of Alan Bennett’s A Cream Cracker Under the Settee. I also really liked the mystery element of the story, and the way that Jack and Florence don’t let their age hold them back from investigating who Gabriel Price really is. The section set in Whitby was fantastic as well: I love Whitby and have visited several times, and Cannon really brought the seaside town to life in the pages of this book. It doesn’t really matter that I’d worked out the third thing about Elsie early on in the novel; it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.

The real strength of this book though was the character development. The characters come to life on the page, showing the reader lots about the nature of aging and giving a real insight into each person’s motivations. A brilliant story, one I would strongly recommend.

Award winners/nominees, Must-reads

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I am a big fan of literature written in or set in the Victorian era. Even so I often wonder what exactly it is that appeals so much to modern readers (myself included) about this time period. Maybe it’s that such a lot of English literature that we read at schools, colleges and universities comes from the 19th Century. Or maybe it’s a TV thing: period dramas seem to have an enduring appeal to viewers, which spills over into our reading habits.

The Essex Serpent, set in the late 19th Century, tells the story of widow Cora who travels into Essex in search of scientific discoveries. She soon hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, a mysterious creature that stalks the village of Aldwinter. It was last ‘seen’ in the 17th Century, but a rising tide of hysteria seems to be gripping the villagers. Cora views this as a scientific adventure and hopes to be able to bring a newly discovered species to London to display. In this she disagrees with William Ransome, the local vicar who is filled with faith, yet also entirely rational when it comes to the presence of the serpent. They are drawn together into a friendship and mutual affection, which threatens to develop into something more.

This story is so beautifully told, with amazing descriptions of natural landscapes, but also a focus on historical detail from a time period where the world was under-going rapid change and discovery. The relationship between Will and Cora is subtle and entirely believable, but also the focus on medicine, science and socialism draws the reader into a much broader world than that of just two characters. In fact we follow several different characters from a variety of backgrounds, all trying to find their place in a world that is changing around them at a rapid pace.

A well-told, intelligent work of historical fiction that I would most definitely recommend.

Murder/mystery/adventure/thriller, Must-reads

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Psychological thrillers have been really popular lately, and with books like I See You it’s easy to understand why so many people are reading them. They’re full of twists and turns, lots of drama, but also contain complex heroes and villains.

The story of I See You begins with Zoe Walker, who on her regular commute from work spots her picture in the classified ads, amongst a range of adverts for chat lines and escort agencies. It contains no information: only a phone number and a website, neither of which are accessible when she tries them. Zoe’s family convince her it can’t possibly be her, and the next day it’s another woman’s face, then another’s. Her worries escalate when one of the women advertised is murdered, and another is a victim of theft, and Zoe becomes determined to discover the truth behind the mysterious adverts.

This is a very tense thriller, dramatic but also highly creepy. The characters are well developed and you really find yourself drawn into the plot of this novel. There are lots of twists and turns, and the reader is kept on their toes from beginning to end. One to read in a couple of sittings, the only problem is that once you start reading, you won’t want to stop!