How to be a Heroine: Or what I’ve learned from reading too much

heroinecoverI’m a bit at a loss as to what to say about this book. In a weird way I hated it. Who is this Samantha Ellis person and how dare she take an idea I had never really had, but feel like I should have because it’s brilliant, and then run with it to produce something bloody wonderful? It’s really just too bad. But seriously – I can’t imagine any woman, of any age, who enjoys reading not loving this.

Part literary criticism, part memoir, the book starts with the author debating literature with her best friend, and coming to the slightly sickening revelation that all her life she’s wanted to be Cathy Earnshaw, when really she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre. (No idea how she ever wanted to be Cathy. I was named after Cathy Earnshaw, and so I should have wanted to be like her. Until I read the book myself and realised that although I loved the book I kind of hated Cathy and thought Heathcliff was a sadistic lunatic. The whole thing was neurotic, not erotic #TeamHareton).

Ellis grew up in a tight knit Iraqi Jewish community, and read voraciously looking for – not exactly friends, or reflections of herself – but alternative, aspirational versions of herself, new blueprints for behaviours. Realising she’s made a poor choice of heroine sparks her decision to reread her favourite books of the past and reappraise the heroines that shaped her as she grew. Along the way, she comes to the realisation that “all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time”. And it is lovely to visit old friends along with her – Anne Shirley is probably my first heroine, although she dwindled into her adulthood. Emily Starr never failed me however, and it’s through this book I learned just how autobiographical the Emily books were for LM Montgomery. Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, and the many wonderful books of Judy Blume are just some of the old favourites revisited here, and it’s wildly enjoyable to go back and hang out with old friends with her.

A lot of the charm of this book is tied to the nostalgia factor. It’s much harder to enjoy lengthy thoughts and analysis on books you have never read, and further more based on what you are reading about them will never, ever choose to read. About a third of the book falls into this category for me, so perhaps your enjoyment of this book is directly proportional to what you have read yourself. It is also somewhat problematic to read judgements of characters so heavily focused on their relationships with men, when all of the biography included in the book shows just how profoundly Ellis herself is effected by the marriage plot. She says that she is panicking because her life isn’t progressing smoothly towards a happy ending, although her younger self took to books as a way of escaping the happy ending her family had planned out for her.

These are minor quibbles though, from a book that reaffirms how we all have the power to become the heroine of our own lives. “All my heroines, yes, even the Little Mermaid, even poor dull listless Sleeping Beauty, have given me this sense of possibility. They made me feel I wasn’t forced to live out the story my family wanted for me, that I wasn’t doomed to plod forward to a fate predetermined by God, that I didn’t need to be defined by my seizures, or trapped in fictions of my own making, or shaped by other people’s stories. That I wanted to write my own life.” This is a shelf-help book that will help you become the reader, and the person, you always wanted to be. Go read it. Now.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark – book review

KOTBDIf you are afraid of the dark, what’s the dark afraid of? The answer lies in Knights of the Borrowed Dark, the first book by the impressively ginger-bearded Irish author Dave Rudden. I expected a lot from it – if an unknown twenty-something gets a full trilogy of book and film rights snapped up it had better be special. As someone with a steely core of cynicism I expected to be disappointed – but I was hooked from the beginning. How’s this for an opening sentence? “Looking back, it had been a mistake to fill the orphanage with books”.

Denizen Hardwick is an orphan living in Crosscaper, a rainswept windswept fortress on the edge of the sea. He is a sardonic wee soul, the only one who doesn’t read the donated books threadbare expecting his own Cinderella moment. Sure, in storybooks orphans are rescued from drudgery when they discover they are a wizard or a warrior or a stolen prince. But this is real life – orphans are just kids without parents who rely on philanthropy and are hidden away from society. Unfortunately for Denizen – real life is not what he thought it was. Shortly after his thirteenth birthday, he is summoned to an embassy-like residence on Seraphim Row, to meet an aunt he never knew existed. There he learns that there are whole other worlds in the shadows, that there are monsters, and that the only thing keeping them at bay is an ancient order of knights with special powers that come at a terrible cost. Powers he has inherited. From a family he never knew he had.

Which was worse – a whole new world coming out of nowhere to derail your future or never having a choice of a future in the first place?

 I don’t want to tell to too much plot wise as it’s a rattling good read and you should go along for the ride. Yeah we have ALL the tropes here, but we are encouraged to cock a wry eyebrow at them – think Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman and you see where Rudden is coming from. There are mythic monsters taking forms out of the shadows, and there are just plain nasty ones. The Clockwork Three are brilliant baddies that bring genuine darkness – wait until you read why ‘the Opening Boy’ is part of the trio and your blood will run cold. Rudden skilfully involves the reader in the creation of the monsters through Denizen’s struggle to describe to us the first shadow monster he meets, which looks “as if you’d been asked to sculpt an angel, but you’d never seen one before, and there were people to tell you what one looked like… but they hated you”.   Continue reading “Knights of the Borrowed Dark – book review”