Review: How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

How to be a Heroine began with that age old question: Emily or Charlotte? Do you prefer the wild and passionate Wuthering Heights, or the strong and independent Jane Eyre?

It seems that people who have read both Charlotte and Emily always fall on either side – I’ve never met anyone who likes or dislikes them equally.

Until recently, my favourite Brontë was Emily. I enjoyed Jane Eyre, but the unedited length of her time with Sir John and his sisters killed my momentum and thus, interest. I never thought Cathy superior to Jane, it was the primitive love in Wuthering Heights that beguiled me.

Now, the Brontë I admire most is Anne. Anne who shunned the imaginative and set herself completely in reality. Her stories are reflective of the suffering of her peers, and I admire her for it.

It’s discussions like this that immediately draw me to a book, and after I saw Ellis talk at Daunt Books Festival I knew How to be a Heroine would be the book for me.

“While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirty-something playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she’s been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favourite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.” GoodReads.

If I read as a child, I don’t remember much of it. I feel quite envious of people who began their love of reading so young, I’ll never be able to catch up with that sort of devotion. Aside from Enid Blyton (I wanted to be part of the Famous Five) and What Katie Did, I couldn’t tell you another book I read independently.

So, Ellis’ journey through all the heroines she read and loved as a child was just magical. As if my years of not reading had never happened.

Alongside this rereading, Ellis talks us through her life. I found it both enlightening and emotional to read about another childhood. Another childhood rather different to my own. Had How to be a Heroine only focused on novels, and not their impact on Ellis it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

I lost interest slightly when I became unfamiliar with the books, however, this was no fault of Ellis’. Her writing is consistent and inquisitive, carrying you through the chapters.

There isn’t much more I can say about this book other than, it’s a delight, go and read it.

Have you read, How to be a Heroine? Who is your favourite Brontë?

Daunt Books Festival: Day 2 [part 2]

You may have noticed – from my inclusion of Instagram and Twitter – that there were musical interludes my day. Not only were the musicians (extremely) talented and entertaining, it was just what I needed to break from concentration and note-taking. I read my book(s) as the music played, it was like being in a cosy living room or (as is my dream) a personal library.

Alas, the majority of the books were not mine.
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Robert Muchamore

Robert Muchamore talks to Philip Womack

  • Robert Muchamore is a YA author, famous for the Cherub series. His most recent novel is Rock War
  • Philip Womack is a children’s novelist and literary critic for The Guardian

[I got given a free book by the lady sitting next to me prior to this event. Sure it was slightly coffee stained, but I’m not going to a) turn down something free b) turn down a book c) be rude. Stains don’t bother me anyway, especially if the book is good (which I was assured it was).]

Free books aside, I’ve never read the Cherub series before.  Muchamore was both unfamiliar and not a writer of the usual genres I turn to. Very interesting for any YA fan, however.

Cherub – like Harry potter (I doubt Muchamore would enjoy this comparison) – is a series many children have grown up with. Speaking to Womack, Muchamore discussed Cherub, his writing and new children’s series Rock War.

Womack began by asking why Muchamore decided to move from spies (Cherub) to Music. Muchamore explained he had always loved music and the idea had always been in the back of his head. He felt both were fantasy novels, different subjects but offering the same things to the reader.

Muchamore said that being a parent could be a barrier to being a children’s novelist, as it opened you to the darker side of being a parent and the worrying that goes with it. Being an uncle is easier for him. He wrote the Cherub books with his Nephew in mind, imagining what he would want growing up, such as a girlfriend.

Questions were then opened to the audience, and it was adorable to see how many kids loved his writing.

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Spies in Fact and Fiction

Charles Cumming & Christopher Andrew talk with James Naughtie

  • Charles Cumming is a spy fiction writer, author of A Spy By Nature and A Colder War
  • Christopher Andrew is the author of Defence of the Realm – an authorised history of MI5 – and Professor at Cambridge
  • James Naughtie is a broadcaster and writer, author of The Madness of July

I began my notes with, “I would be a good spy.” This is both arrogant and absolute rubbish. I’d crumble like a biscuit under that sort of pressure.

I think this may have been my favourite talk, even though spy fiction isn’t a genre I dip into. It was just so fascinating! Sadly, the only thing I can recall without looking checking my notes is that I’ve been pronouncing Le Carre incorrectly (it’s ‘le Ca-rey’, not ‘le car’ as I had thought). The embarrassment. And that Andrew was wearing a Blue Peter badge, which reminded me how much I have always wanted one.

Andrew stated that the British are the best at spy novels as they are often written by ex-spies. He also found it interesting that Intelligence is the only occupation where the fictional characters are more known than the professionals. People think they know about spying, but they don’t. Cumming agreed.

The discussion then moved to the difference between old spy fiction and the new – the inclusion of tech, for example. Naughtie stateed that politically it feels as if a Cold War-esc atmosphere has returned, and Cumming agreed that there is certainly a demand for that type of fiction. He referenced Putin as the cause of this, referring to Putin as fictionally “the gift that keeps on giving.” Andrew added to the humour with, “Putin is the first world leader since Mussolini that thinks he looks better with his shirt off than with his shirt on.”

Unsurprisingly Snowden was soon mentioned, Cumming explained that he is an interesting figure as he is mostly regarded as a hero. Which is demonstrative of how the world has changed, he would have been seen as a traitor. Cumming stated that he thought Snowden had the best intentions but did not consider the consequences. Andrew considered him stupid, as it makes spying more difficult when you show people (and the enemy) how to do it.

The success of the secret service, Andrew went on to explained, is based on things that don’t happen. Fiction, on the other hand, is different as you need action to push the plot forward.

Naughtie asks Cumming if, post-Snowdon, he found his books have gone out of date. With the readers knowing more than the characters. Cumming hadn’t noticed much difference but has had a plot occur as he was writing. He wants to avoid meeting too many spies in order to keep his stories fresh.

Questions are then open to the audience.

A question is asked about the role of women in the spy fiction genre. Andrew (or perhaps Naughtie) immediately mentioned Dame Stella Rimington, writer of spy fiction and ex-head of MI5. Andrew went on to give a brief history of the absorption of women into the intelligence fields. During the First World War it was decided that the cleverest female secretaries should be brought in. Some men hated the idea, others were happy their “secretaries could do their accounts.” Apparently, Russia in the 80s never thought to question that the woman next to them may have been a spy, women were underestimated.

Naughtie feels women are underrepresented in fiction, referencing authors such as Le Carre and Ian Flemming, who disliked female characters.

One of the final questions was on the role of tech in spy fiction. Cumming explained it is for storytelling purposes, and not reflective of actual intelligence work.

Fun (it’s not fun) fact: even if an iPhone is off it can act as a live microphone.

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Palin on Place

Michael Palin talks to Brett Wolstencroft

  • Michael Palin is a comedian, actor, writer, traveller and general hero of mine
  • Brett Wolstencroft is manager of the Marleybone branch of Daunt Books

[I got chatting to another couple as we were waiting for Palin, who were also absolutely lovely – I’ve had some wonderful people take pity on me and chat at this event.]

Miraculously I manage to refrain from screaming the Lumberjack song at Palin. An experience I can guarantee he would not have enjoyed and I would have had anxiety dreams about for… well, the rest of my life.

It also would have been completely off topic, as Palin wasn’t there to talk about Comedy or Python, but place.

Palin, post comedy years, is known for his travelling: Around the World in 80 Days, his travel diaries and various other ventures. Interestingly, he wasn’t the BBC’s first choice, he was in fact 5th. Both Noel Edmunds and Clive James could have toured us over the world – how different that would have been!

Wolstencroft felt that Around the World in 80 Days changed the nature of travel programmes from then on. “I’m still not sure to this day if I did what the BBC wanted me to do”, said Palin. He had no script and decided early on that he wanted to make it about the journey. Palin explained that travelling like this meant being open and considerate, “empathy is very important.”

He had to enter each situation with humility, as you couldn’t just direct people in all the places he visited, they are offering hospitality and you are the visitor. Wolstencroft referenced Clarkson and his particular method of diplomacy while travelling, Palin was delicate with his response but felt, “you need to respect everyone you meet along the way.”

The conversation then moves to Palin’s travel diaries, which Wolstencroft described as very different to usual travel writing. Palin described how he was always writing while travelling, noting things down in his diary. He wanted to make the book that would accompany the series a personal experience, an extension of the show rather than a replication.

Palin feels that travelling isn’t about escape, but learning. Travelling changed his attitude to life. He praised Daunt, where he bought all his book before travelling. He always had a novel with him to correspond with the country he was in. For those of you who are unaware, the Marleybone branch of Daunt organises fiction and non-fiction along with travel guides for each country.

Wolstencroft went on to ask Palin about his affinity with Hemingway, whom Palin discovered at school and lost his “literary virginity” to. Palin finds Hemingway an amazing traveller, who lived with the people from the towns in the countries he visited, rather than hotels.

Palin then read a portion of his latest fiction before questions began.

An audience member asks what was the most difficult place to get to that he then found disappointing, to which Palin responded, the South Pole. To get there, you go over a very bleak landscape only to arrive at somewhere that looks like an Argos depot or Ikea, he explained.

Palin has never done any unplanned travelling, not knowing where the next place to stay would be, although at times he has been allowed to go off piste while filming.

Another audience member asked what travel writers he read, and how they may have affected what he then wrote. However, Palin explained that other than Theroux he avoided travel writers, preferring local novel/writers to get a better idea of place.

And so ended my time at the festival.

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Emily and everyone at Daunt did a wonderful job putting this festival together, it made for a marvellous little holiday.

Again, I believe recordings of these events will go up on the Daunt website, so do go have a listen.

What events have you been to recently? Have you any fun ones up coming? Did you ever win a Blue Peter badge?

Daunt Book Festival: Day 2 [part 1]

According to the scribbles in my notepad, half the fun of attending events like these is the interaction with other bookie people. I stand by this statement. I met some lovely ladies over the two days, and not always who I expected to.

Emily’s Walking Book Club

Alongside organising the Daunt Books Festival, Emily runs the walking book club regularly from the Hampstead Daunt branch and blogs at, Emily Books.

I can’t remember the name of the first lady I got chatting to, but she was very nice to solo me and is a veteran of Emily’s Walking Book Club. By chance, she was one of the two ladies I had been sitting next to at the Emil and the Detective’s talk – I was right thinking I would see them again.

My fellow walkers and I met at Daunt, then as our numbers grew Emily led us to Regents Park to begin the walk. The cold held no sway as we proceeded to amble and discuss Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, a novel I read due to last year’s festival (and re-read between talks the day before). Emily structured the walk so we had points of discussion to mull over every fifteen minutes or so. Considering my ability to go off on a tangent, it was helpful to have her guidance.

Near the end of the walk, I began chatting to Judith, and as the walk concluded she and her friend Laura invited me to come for a cup of tea with them. They were marvelous company and should they happen to come across this post: thank you very much for the tea, pastries and saying I must be a perfect daughter. My mum did indeed laugh!

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In Praise of Short Stories

Tessa Hadley, Colin Barrett & Julianne Pachico talk to Laura Macaulay

  • Tessa Hadley has written four novels and two collections of short stories
  • Colin Barrett collection of stories is titled, Young Skins
  • Julianne Pachico’s collection of stories, The Tourists, is published by Daunt
  • Laura Macaulay works at Daunt as both a publisher and a bookseller

Last year this was the event that took me by surprise. I hadn’t read short stories (I don’t read them often enough now) and it opened my mind to another area of fiction. While this event had been brought back from the year before it had a very different feel to it, it was a different take on the same topic.

Each of the panel begin by reading from their collections. Before Barrett begins to read he jokes that his is written in a rich Irish dialect and may be difficult to understand. Unlike Pachio or Hadley, he isn’t a natural reader, however, his was the most powerful story of the three.

Macaulay then spoke about the sense of location that runs through each of their collections, and asks why they are set where they are. She felt that the connection of place is what threads their stories together.

Barrett explains that he wrote a lot of stories, but the ones that worked best were set in his town. More material came from this location than it did elsewhere. Pachico felt comfort in knowing Barratt felt this way, as she too found that writing something similar to what she knew is what worked for her.

Although, while each writer is comfortable setting their stories in a familiar place and time, they do not make their stories biographical. Hadley quotes (or perhaps paraphrases) Alice Monroe, who said that you don’t write about your children, you need them to look after you.

Barrett stated he had no interest in writing about the actual and liked to take what he knew and fictionalise it. It “has to be done with fiction.” Hadley agrees and feels it is, “hugely exposing to write.” Pachico’s mother once read one of her stories and asked her if that was how she saw her family. She explains that she gets anxious that people may think stories are about them when they’re not.

From what they were discussing, it gave a general feeling that all three writers take life experience and feelings, such as anxiety, and put these into characters unlike themselves. This is how they melded the fictional with the actual.

On the difference between writing a novel and short stories, Barrett enjoyed the ability to be suggestive with short stories. He explains that “you embody a character”, you don’t need to flesh a character out or wrap up a plot. Short stories are a glimpse or a moment. Pachico agreed and felt you can go against the rules or do something fun with a short stories. Utilise what doesn’t work in a novel setting. “You can throw those little grenades in there.”

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Russians in Paris: Gazdanov, Teffi and other Émigré Writers of the 1920s

Bryan Karetnyk & Peter Pomerantsev talk to Nicholas Lezard

  • Bryan Karetnyk is a translator of Russian literature, including Gazdanov
  • Peter Pomerantsev is author of, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, an account of Putin’s Russia
  • Nicholas Lezard is a writer and literary critic for The Guardian

Much like the Emil and the Detectives event the day before, I did not take lengthy notes during this talk. Mainly because the subject matter was too far outside of my interests. However, it was informative and did make me want to look into authors such as Teffi or Gazdanov.

[The ladies who bought me tea were sitting next to me, which was a lovely happenstance]

Lezard began by asking what brought Russian émigré writers to Paris. Pomerantsev explained it was due to the revolution, and that French was the natural location for these writers (say over London, which is the location for Russian Oligarchs now). Karetnyk stated that these writers were very European, that while they had an innate Russian-ness their writing was European-esc.

Teffi was very popular with the Tzar and Lenin, when the revolution began it was not a Russia she wanted to be in (or write for). Both Teffi and Gazdanov ran to France in 1917. Here they had the ability to write freely, and somewhat recreate themselves. Pomerantsev felt this was natural when you flee one place for another, you can become what you were not.

Lezard asked what the émigré writers thought of those who stayed in Russia. Karetnyk explained there was a good relationship between soviet journals and those in émigré Berlin and Paris. This surprised me, I expected a brittle relationship between the two. Or even a lack of respect for one another.

While I wasn’t sure if I had completely understood the history of Russian émigré writers as the event concluded. I had enjoyed the glimpse into an area of both history and literature I had never encountered before.

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Part 2 of the days events will be posted shortly (Saturday).

Are you part of a book club? What short stories are you reading at the moment?