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Given the typical state of our British summer, I've had plenty of time to read as opposed to doing all those summery things one ought to be doing. Like breathing fresh air. Or weeding the garden. Or yomping in the hills. So here's an update on my favourite reads of the past few months. Rainbow Rowell's beautiful Eleanor and Park and Phil Earle's Heroic are both excellent and will appeal to adult and YA readers alike. Eleanor and Park is a love story that had me blubbing and turning the pages in anticipation right up to the very end. In fact, I read the end several times, not quite believing the story was over. And especially over in THAT way. Thanks to the joy of Twitter I've asked the author for a sequel. Will potentially resort to bribery to force this to happen. That's how much I love it.
I've also read a couple of novels from the Orange Prize shortlist. Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple made me laugh out loud (huge respect for writers who can do this) as did A M Homes May We Be Forgiven. The latter is particularly clever and while both are satirical I think the depth and assured polish of Homes' novel might mean she takes the prize. Not that my opinion counts! I haven't yet read the others from the list - not sure I'm excited enough about the premise of Zadie Smith's NW to do so and whilst I'm a massive fan of Kate Atkinson, again, I'm not overly tempted. But we'll see. Another corker is Lionel Shriver's Big Brother. She writes so well about dysfunctional families and although I loathed almost every single one of her characters the novel was addictive, fascinating and riddled with the darkest humour.
As for my next book - yes I am writing it , and no I haven't finished. Writing "the dreaded second novel" really is as horrible as everyone tells you it will be! But I'm saving that story up for another post. Currently, my lips are sealed for fear of the jinx effect.
Click the link to see for yourself! The clip says it all...
So when I'm not trying to write novels, or when my children are at school, my other job is as an English teacher. Today we looked at a poem by Wendy Cope - On Finding an Old Photograph. It conveys Cope's feelings on discovering a picture of her father taken before she was born and is both beautiful and moving.
The beauty comes in the honesty, the laying of the self bare. There is nothing obscure or pretentious in the language Cope uses and this is why the emotion is so raw, I think. This is when literature really works, isn't it, when it creates connections between people who have never even met. It's amazing how human experience can be translated when given artistic form, be it as poetry, as music, theatre or prose - creating waves of emotion that spread through an audience. Reading Wendy Cope's poem made me think of my own ambivalent feelings about looking at pictures of my children when they were younger ( they still are pretty young, so we're only talking about a few years ago). I always get a huge lump in my throat and can't bear to watch the many, many films my husband made of those days. I suppose it's the feeling that time has passed and is passing, a time which you can never reclaim, a feeling which then becomes painfully present through those precious images.
Since it's International Women's Day I want to celebrate a few of the great female characters in fiction by exploring why I love them and why they're so memorable. Their authors too, many of whom are men.
Let's start with Chaucer's Wife of Bath. What a loud, loquacious lady she is, vividly described as "gat-toothed" (in medieval symbolism - a bit of a man-eater). With her red stockings and massive hat in the shape of a shield, she's a woman ready to take on the men. A survivor of domestic violence, she turns Janckyn's (husand number five) rhetoric back on him, ripping up his "Book of Wicked Wives" in the process and tells a fabulous story. Pretty radical, I think, even if she did fall for the wrong chap.
Moving on to Shakespeare, I can't help but admire the wickedness of Goneril and Regan. With a father like Lear, domineering, childish, petulant and narcissistic, is it any wonder they reduce his retinue from 100 to 50 to 25 and then to...1. Mind you, eye-gouging is a little too extreme even for my tastes and their evil is indisputable by the end of the play. So how about, if we're looking for a Shakespearean feminist hero, Beatrice from Much Ado. Witty, feisty, hugely loyal to her wronged cousin Hero, she won't love or marry just to fit in with society's expectations and only takes on Benedict on her own terms. Great character.
Then you've got to have a bit of Jane Austen. Fanny Price is a bit too pious for my liking, Emma Woodhouse a bit too spoilt. But Lizzy Bennet - can we fault her? She won't let anyone put her down, she sees through (eventually) vice and folly and is a loyal daughter and sister.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Then there's Hardy's Tess. Oh, I love Tess. Her struggle to deal with Victorian hypocrisy, her incredible sensitivity, curious mixture of both humility and her pride and the cruelty meted out to her never fail to wring my heart. One of my favourite characters and novels ever.
“Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only - finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings'll be like thousands' and thousands'.”
Another great female is Prue Sarn of Mary Webb's novel "Precious Bane". Like Rebecca in Black Heart Blue, Prue is marked out by her disfigurement - a harelip, the "bane" of the title. She is a character who battles against her brother, her circumstances and society and who ultimately triumphs. A wonderful, wonderful book and character.
Stand-out characters, noteworthy for their courage and indomitable spirit in more modern fiction include Katniss of The Hunger Games and then there's Harper Lee's Scout, L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley, and Dahl's Matilda. As a young reader I adored Tamora Pierce's Alanna series and the eponymous lead character. She dresses as a boy in order to achieve her dream of becoming a knight and goes through all kinds of adventures that test both her physical and emotional strength. But I suppose the character who stands out most to me is Celie of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple. The book is a fascinating study of the power women can find within themselves and from each other when faced with the most brutal circumstances. It's a must read.
This is a long list. I haven't even mentioned Hester Prynne, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Pippi Longstocking. Hope they'll forgive me. If I haven't mentioned one of your favourites, feel free to scream.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
I'm so delighted that Black Heart Blue and my splendid editor, Amanda Punter, made the Branford Boase long-list. From the website: "The Branford Boase Award was set up to reward the most promising new writers and their editors, as well as to reward excellence in writing and in publishing. The Award is made annually to the most promising book for seven year-olds and upwards by a first time novelist." The short list will be published later in the spring.
Here's a link to the full list: