NON-FICTION//Letters From the Suitcase- edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan*

Letters From The Suitcase (Jun) This is one of those books that I probably would never have picked up, but-oh!- I’m so grateful I was sent it. I always forget how much I enjoy collections of letters  and I enjoyed this collection very much.

Mary Moss and David Francis met in 1938 and fell in love almost instantly; the book is a collection of letters written by them to each other over the course of seven years. Two young people, from completely different backgrounds, desperate to be together but separated by war, poured their hearts out on paper. It’s a moving collection of letters that’s full of humour, frustration and utter, all-consuming love. I was also surprised at the modern tone of the letters- we tend to think of the 1930s/40s as being completely different to now, but here the couple write in a way that we would recognise: they call each other ‘honey’ and early on Mary hints at a pre-marriage pregnancy scare. Later, after their daughter Rosheen arrives, the parental pride is touching and the concerns that Mary has seem very similar to some of those I have for my own son now.

As war makes the separation deeper and longer, Mary’s descent into depression and David’s war work colours the letters. It’s a fascinating look at the way that war affected those working for the Allies (David works on high level projects and is posted to Africa and, later, India, where he would die of smallpox) and those left at home in a terrible limbo. The longing that permeates the pages is moving and heartbreaking. Little in-jokes, film reviews, the excitement over a Russian red winter coat, David asking Mary what he can send her as a treat- all these things help the reader see inside the marriage and feel sadness as it becomes apparent that the story does not have a happy ending.

After David’s death, Mary hid the correspondence in a suitcase in the attic, only to reveal to Rosheen that they were there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to discover a cache of letters from a father you knew very little about- but I’m so glad that they have been published.

BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history.  And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However,  the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)

After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.

This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.

The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.

FICTION//Homegoing- Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing (Apr):  Homegoing is a lush, far-reaching novel that tells the story of a fractured family tree across two continents and seven generations: a beautiful girl, born on the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) on the night of a devastating fire, grows up to be the ‘wench’- or unofficial wife- of a British officer whose job it is to procure slaves for the late 18th century slave trade. At the same time as she lives a life of relative luxury in a fortress called ‘The Castle‘, her unknown half-sister  is suffering horrifically in the dungeons below, waiting for the day she will be shipped halfway across the world to work on American plantations. Each of the following chapters tells the story of the descendants of these two women: the loves, lives and choices each generation makes. Although this is a novel and each story is presented as a chapter, each felt more like a complete short story in its own right.

This is a novel that literally took my breath away at points; I found myself rushing home from work to snatch five minutes to read it whilst the house was quiet. I wanted to give this story my full attention. The struggle for survival, the theme of resilience and resistance runs deeply throughout the novel. The characters survive a multitude of challenges: slavery, racism, drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness. But there is also hope in this novel- a young girl learns where she comes from, thanks to her grandmother; a young man convicted thanks to racism goes on to make a life for himself and his family. Like life, this novel is a rollercoaster and I loved every second of it.

The writing is wonderful- poetic and evocative. The family legacy runs deep within the narrative- it is not always obvious, but it’s there.  This is a rich novel that teaches as much as it engrosses. It has the potential to become very important indeed.

The Brontë Project//Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life- Samantha Ellis

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life (Feb):  As I get older, Anne Brontë just makes loads more sense to me than her sisters. The sensible, shy and youngest Brontë sister was the only one who could make a job stick, who saw the world from the view of a working woman. Sure, I thought I liked Emily best- and she still has her moments, especially when it comes to her poetry- but Anne just grows more and more relevant to me as I grow older, even though she was younger than me when she died.

It’s in this spirit that Samantha Ellis writes this book. Sure, there have been tons of Brontë biographies and a few have made a good go at writing about Anne, even though there is scant evidence of her life outside of her work- none of the Gondal stories she wrote as a child with Emily survive, only five of her letters are known and there’s no existing manuscript of her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, that survives, possibly thanks to Charlotte destroying a lot of her work after her death. In truth, it would be easy to see Anne as some kind of a ghost, slipping her way through literary history. Ellis remarks in her book that staff at the Parsonage Museum state that they are rarely asked about Anne- more people apparently ask where Heathcliff is buried. (Bloody Heathcliff.)

In contrast to previous biographies, Ellis looks at Anne Brontë not through what is there and then filling in the awesome gaps left by the silence, but rather by exploring the different people in Anne’s life. Ellis is a playwright and these chapters feel almost like character studies- but they work. It’s a clever idea that allows her to weave in information about Anne’s life and the society in which she lived and how that is ultimately reflected back in the novels she wrote. A chapter on the Brontës’ beloved servant Tabby (always one of my most favourite people in the Brontë story, mainly because I imagine my own relatives being from good, honest Yorkshire stock like Tabby’s own family) allows Ellis to explore how Haworth and its surroundings shaped the work of the Brontës. A chapter on Anne’s father Patrick, much maligned by Gaskell and who to me has always seemed like a sweet man trying his best, means we get a look at the role of the clergy in his lifetime and how this shaped the upbringing of the sisters and their infamous brother. Each person in Anne’s life is here and the lessons that they bring to her work- and to us- feel like they have messages that are still relevant in today’s messy world.

Like her previous work, Ellis weaves her own exploration of Anne Brontë’s work. It’s a deeply personal tale of discovery for the author, too. Somehow, I think Anne would have liked that. She wanted her work to be a lesson for the reader, to help how they view the world. What she didn’t realise is the impact that she would keep on having nearly 200 years later.


HISTORICAL//The Witchfinder’s Sister- Beth Underdown*

The Witchfinder's Sister (Jan):  When I was about nine, I remember my grandma giving me a book about the history of witchcraft in the British Isles. I was a slightly strange little girl and I think that she realised that the book would appeal to me. It did- I remember reading it more than once and looking at the strange figures in the woodcut illustrations. None seemed stranger than the images of Matthew Hopkins, the feared Witchfinder General of the Civil War years. He seemed like an ogre from a story book, a giant of folklore. I was interested, then, when I received a package with this novel, a letter that read as if in some guarded code and some pressed flowers with medicinal properties. (The way to get my attention is with something intriguing…)

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, the protagonist is Hopkins’ pregnant sister Alice, who returns to Essex from London after the death of her husband. Alone in the world, she turns to the household of her seemingly pious brother and observes him as he begins to work for powerful men, hunting out so-called witches. At first, Alice believes that the witch hunts are nothing more than local retribution games, acts of spite that will quickly be thrown out by the courts. She becomes more horrified as she realises that her brother is taking his work seriously- and drawing her further and further into the orbit of his work.

That strange little girl in me was not disappointed by this novel. The paranoia, dread and cruelty of the real-life events jumped from the page and I felt Alice’s pain and angst vividly. She struggles with her grief and depression, as well as a mounting horror at the actions of those around her. Hopkins himself is monstrous, but Alice attempts to piece together the human source of this monstrosity. He is cruel to everyone, including her. The whole novel is claustrophobic and frightening. It also feels timely: the women targeted by Hopkins are old, strange, out-of-place. They do not have a voice and the men in the novel ride roughshod over them. Alice is never allowed to forget that it is a man’s world she inhabits, no matter how hard she fights for herself and the women caught up in the nightmare. There is something potentially rewarding about the ending, but I’ll not spoil that for you here!

Beth Underwood’s great-uncle was an historian of the period and this passion clearly flows from one generation to the next. This is a well-researched, interesting novel.

Secret Diaries Past & Present- Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme

Secret Diaries Past and Present (Jan): For my entire life, my grandma- Helena Whitbread– has been studying the life of Anne Lister, a remarkable Yorkshire woman who wrote a prolific diary in code. The diary held a secret- Anne, an upstanding citizen and landowner, well known in her hometown of Halifax, was a lesbian. What my grandma was working on (and some of my earliest memories are of her on her electric typewriter) was one of the earliest surviving records of lesbianism. I remember being fascinated by the code- it’s tiny and cramped and almost illegible if you don’t know what you’re looking at- and later, after I read the translated diaries, I was fascinated by the woman herself. She really does feel like an extra relative.

I’ve read most things my grandma has written, so I was pleased to get my hands this latest project, a Q+A with modern diarist, Natasha Holme. Natasha has written a diary-also in code, also dealing with her sexuality- since she was thirteen. This book looks at the two diaries together and discusses how diarists approach their work.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the two diaries, written 200 years apart but with so many similarities, through the use of an interview between Helena and Natasha and extracts of both diaries presented side by side. The discussion of the lives of Anne and Natasha (and, of personal interest to me, my grandma!) was very interesting. Although much in the world changes, some things stay the same it seems.

This is a book for those who enjoy reading diaries and maybe want to learn more about what motivates someone to write them; a chance to peek behind the curtain perhaps. There are also rumours that Sally Wainwright is to write a series about Anne Lister; you might want to get in there before it gets huge and find out more about coded diaries now- you could do worse than start here.


HISTORY//SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome-Mary Beard

SPQR (Dec):  In 2016 I think I bought two books (the rest were either gifts, library books or review books)- this and Greg Jenner’s book. Because I tend to read my review books first- and any library books, of course- ‘my’ books get pushed to the bottom of the pile.

I enjoy Mary Beard’s work a lot. For someone who regrets not taking history past Year 9, I find her books and TV programmes informative and interesting; I have learnt a lot from her. (I will always have a soft spot for Mary because I read a couple of her books of collected columns when D was very, very tiny. They were the perfect length for my brief baths. She was very kind when I would tweet random questions to her in the middle of the night and would often reply quite quickly.) This book, unlike her excellent book about Pompeii- which I read at the time the British Museum had its huge exhibition on artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, covers the birth of Rome up until 400CE. This means that it takes in wars, the career of Cicero, the first fourteen emperors and the lives of those across the Empire.

I did find parts of the book heavy going (teeny-tiny font didn’t help!) and it did take longer than usual for me to read the book as I tried desperately to keep track of wars, generals and feuds- and I say this as someone who watched the accompanying series a while back. Where I did enjoy the book was where Beard moved out of the Republic and into the era of the emperors; it was easier to keep track of and understand. Maybe it’s my own brain that found it easier to understand this. I suspect it is. But where I think she truly excels is in the exploration of the lives of ordinary Romans, bringing to life what the man and the woman on the street might have experienced. This was the part of the book I enjoyed the most and the part that really stood out for me when reading. I suppose it’s easier to identify with those people who just get on with life, regardless of what the political elites are doing.

And, although Beard cautions us against reading too much of the modern world in the Roman one, it does feel like the right time to be reading this book. There was distrust of the elite in Rome, there were similar problems (how do you look after the poor?) and there were politicians using foreigners as scapegoats. All of these things seem familiar in a world where is currently very possible to feel like everything is upside down. Was this book a bit of a brain workout? Yes. Did I learn something? Definitely.