Today is World Book Day and my Facebook timeline is full of wonderful photos of children dressing up as their favourite characters from fiction. So far, I can see Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, several Harry Potters, ditto Hermione Granger, a cute Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mr Bump (from the Mr. Men books), Veruca Salt and a very impressive Tamora, Queen of the Goths from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. This is such a great idea, as is anything which encourages reading. And a literary poll of memorable children’s novel characters has revealed that heroines and female villains outnumber heroes and male baddies – but the top hero and the top villain are both male: Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, respectively. Two of my favourite heroines appear in that list, too: Jo March from ‘Little Women’ and Anne Shirley from the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series.
A website that I really love, even more so since my niece was born a few years ago (“though she be but little she is fierce”) is A Mighty Girl which dubs itself as the world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for ‘smart, confident, and courageous girls’. Their book section alone has over 2,000 girl-empowering books starring stellar Mighty Girl characters.
Some recent reads of my own (and note that, coincidentally, a couple of them are priced at 99p today, 3rd March, for the Kindle editions), by either fabulous female authors and/or which feature strong, thought provoking heroines and real life women, are:
- The Interestings, The Position and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. I think I first stumbled over a Meg Wolitzer novel as a Kindle Deal of the Day and since then have worked my way through the rest of her output. Often set in New York, always featuring smart characters and definitely worthy of a read, particularly if, like me, you love the work of writers like Alison Lurie and Anne Tyler. Start with The Wife and see if you can spot the plot twist.
- Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton. A great new Young Adult novel; read my review here.
- The Help – Kathryn Stockett. I re-read this recently, following a holiday to the USA and was reminded again of what a powerful book it is (and a first, rejected by many publishers, novel too) and also what a great job they made of the film adaptation. So many great female characters, both heroines and villains. Chocolate pie, anyone?
- Life After Life – Kate Atkinson. This is rapidly becoming my new comfort read – I love twentieth century history and fiction at the best of times; Atkinson’s telling of Ursula’s birth in 1910 and then her varied, potential lives is a modern classic and one to which I return time and time again (appropriately).
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
- Summertime – Vanessa Lafaye. Another holiday read, this is also a first novel and tells the story of a huge hurricane which hit the Florida Keys in the 1930s. Very thought provoking images of race and place.
- This Charming Man – Marian Keyes. Not her most recent novel but I think, her best – an amazing depiction of domestic violence and the “charming man” who inflicts it upon a number of very different women.
- Just One Damn Thing After Another – Jodi Taylor. The first in the brilliant “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” series of novels about time travelling, tea fuelled historian Max.
- The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett. Not the first time I’ve raved about this book, I know, but the characters seems to have taken up residence in my head.
- The Light Years – Elizabeth Jane Howard. This would probably be my desert island book. A much missed, under rated writer and the author of this, the first in the Cazalet quartet. And then read about her actual childhood and the life she led which gave rise to the fictionalised account in her autobiography, Slipstream.
I’ve had something of a phase of reading about women’s lives in the twentieth century of late, as evidenced by some of these choices, starting with: Her Brilliant Career: 10 Extraordinary Women of the 1950s by Rachel Cooke
Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of any of these women before I read this book; it was a real eye opener to learn more about women working as architects and film producers, at a time when women in general were being urged back into the home after their brief period of wartime liberation. (And I also love the cover, see above). Which brings me neatly to:
- The Fifties Mystique – Jessica Mann: in which we get to learn about why the 1950s weren’t (spoiler alert) actually All That for women, in spite of the current vogue for re-casting history in a more favourable, vintage light.
- Debs at War: 1939-1945 – Anne de Courcy. I came to this having read the author’s excellent book on the women who sailed to India to find husbands and also because I wanted to read more about women in World War 2 after one of my re-reads of Life after Life. This really opened my eyes as to how the lives of upper class women were changed beyond measure by their involvement in war work – as nurses, drivers, code crackers at Bletchley Park and pilots.
- A Curious Career – Lynn Barber. The fearless interviewer ‘Barber of Fleet Street’ describes how she fell into a career as a journalist and recalls some of her more memorable interviews and encounters. She is also the author of ‘An Education’, another example of a great book and a worthy on-screen interpretation. The film also stars Carey Mulligan, seen more recently in ‘Suffragette’, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors.
- I Am Malala. Read my review here.
- My Life in Houses – Margaret Forster. This is Forster’s last work of non-fiction, before her recent sad death and tells her life story through the medium of all the places she’s lived. As much of a social history of housing (I can’t imagine a young married couple now being able to buy a Whole House in north London in their early twenties) as it is her memoir, it’s a charming read and she will be much missed; I have all of her books. And finally, but by way of a contrast:
- The Big Fat Surprise: Why Meat, Butter and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet – Nina Teicholz Something of a crossover read for me, combining as it does my interest in food with a very solidly researched book by a female writer. I first read this in 2014 and it’s completely changed my approach to food, cookery and weight loss.