Top 7: Victorian Novels

Having spent the past term at university studying Victorian literature, I feel that I am now reasonably well-versed in the subject, so I’ve put together this list of 7 books which I personally enjoyed and which I feel encompass the Victorian period fairly well. Of course, I have by no means read everything (on my TBR list are Dracula, Vanity Fair and The Mill on the Floss amongst others) and I haven’t included more than one book by the same author, so please feel free to comment with your suggestions!

  1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) – classic love story featuring dark brooding hero, sassy orphaned heroine, wicked stepfamily, dismal boarding school and mysterious house with dark secret in the attic. Read my review here.
  2. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) – the bizarre tale of a messed-up family living in a ramshackle house on the Yorkshire moors. May not be the passionate romance you expect but gets more interesting with every re-read. Read my review here.
  3. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) – probably the most accessible Dickens novel. Memorable characters including the escaped convict Magwitch, simple blacksmith Joe and eerily fascinating jilted bride Miss Havisham. Read my review here.
  4. The Woodlanders (Thomas Hardy) – probably a controversial choice for the only Hardy book on this list, but it was the novel that really got me interested in his work. Bittersweet story following the lives and loves of the inhabitants of the fictional village of Little Hintock, Wessex.
  5. Mary Barton (Elizabeth Gaskell) – an extremely underrated book. Part condition-of-England-novel, part-romance, part-murder mystery, part-legal drama. Compelling characters and a wholesome moral message.
  6. Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll) – perfect for fans of dodos, Mad Hatters, March Hares, White Rabbits, Cheshire Cats and Queens of Hearts amongst other things. Complete escapism, loonily lovable.
  7. Middlemarch (George Eliot) – can’t really leave this one out as it always seems to top the charts for ‘greatest English novel ever’. Searing psychological insight, witty observations, very quotable and you can use it as a doorstop afterwards. Read my review here.

Top 7: Christina Rossetti Poems

I have just finished reading a selection of Christina Rossetti’s poems and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them. They were reasonably simple to read and understand, Rossetti’s use of rhyme often giving them a sing-song quality. Yet despite their apparent simplicity, almost all of the poems were deep, moving and powerful. Reading them felt like getting to know the poet herself, as most of her work returned to the same themes: Rossetti’s relationship with God and the pain she suffered in love. Here are some of my personal favourites:

1. Goblin Market – probably Rossetti’s most famous work, this is a must-read. It tells the story of a girl who is led astray by goblins selling their dangerous wares, but is ultimately redeemed by the love of her sister. The irregular rhyme scheme masterfully reflects the calls of market sellers.

2. Monna Innominata – this ‘sonnet of sonnets’ is comprised of fourteen sonnets tracing the course of a relationship, each of which is a beautiful poem in its own right.

3. ‘No, Thank You, John’ – this charming poem is the author’s polite but definite rejection of a potential lover.

4. In An Artist’s Studio – a poignant sonnet describing one man’s immortalisation of his lover in art.

5. The Hour and the Ghost – I liked the clever, chilling ending of this poem, which is narrated from the perspectives of three different people (‘Bride’, ‘Bridegroom’ and ‘Ghost’).

6. Maude Clare – this poem, which is comprised mainly of conversation, is sassy and surprising to the very last line.

7. Winter: My Secret – a playful poem using the motif of seasons to represent the narrator’s willingness to open up to her lover.

Top 7: Poems from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’

I had never read anything by Larkin before I picked this collection up, and I confess myself pleasantly surprised; though there was a thread of melancholy running throughout, it was never heavy-handed enough to become depressing. Each poem was deep and many-layered, yet extremely accessible. If you’re interested, here are my recommendations:

  1. MCMXIV – a very poignant portrayal of a blissfully innocent England on the eve of the First World War.
  2. The Whitsun Weddings – the titular poem captures one seemingly unimportant moment in time beautifully.
  3. Love Songs in Age – an understated yet pitch-perfect depiction of ageing and grief that uses the motif of old records.
  4. Mr Bleaney – I like the way this poem effortlessly depicts the characters of two men who inhabit one room at different times.
  5. First Sight – I appreciate the sentiment behind this poem, which implies that there is always something better, even if you can’t see it at first.
  6. Afternoons – a lovely but melancholy interpretation of the disillusionment felt by many young mothers of Larkin’s era.
  7. Take One Home for the Kiddies – this poem is grimly sassy and turns very dark, very quickly.

Top 7: Poems from ‘The World’s Wife’

‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite volumes of poetry. It invents the untold stories of the women behind the great men of history in an accessible way, while still having plenty of depth. If you’re interested, here are my recommendations:

  1. Little Red-Cap – Here Duffy recalls a past love affair, using the allegory of Little Red Riding Hood. There is some beautiful gothic imagery and several memorable lines, such as ‘allotments/kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men‘.
  2. Mrs Darwin – This poem somehow manages to be funny, clever and thought-provoking in just four lines.
  3. Pygmalion’s Bride – A witty take on the classic story of the sculptor who falls in love with his own masterpiece.
  4. Anne Hathaway – A romantic interpretation of what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in his will, ‘Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed…
  5. The Devil’s Wife – A disturbing but profound poem in five parts, based on the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
  6. Mrs Quasimodo – This longer poem is tragic but refreshing in that it deals with two ugly people falling in love, and I like the motif of the bells and their ‘murdered music.’
  7. Demeter – A touching and understated celebration of a mother’s love, and a fitting way to end the collection.


Top 7: Wilfred Owen poems

Recently I read a collection of Wilfred Owen’s poems and loved their power and poignancy. If you’re interested in getting to know his work and aren’t sure where to start, here are my personal favourites:

1. Dulce et Decorum Est – This is probably the quintessential Owen poem. It is memorable for the sheer grotesque honesty of its imagery and it stayed with me for a long time after I first read it.

2. Disabled – I studied this poem at school but, if anything, reading it again only enhanced my appreciation of its tragic portrayal of a man physically incapacitated by the war.

3. The Send-Off – This poem is less graphic and violent than most of the other poems. It is calm and understated in an unsettling way which makes it all the more poignant.

4. S.I.W. – This poem describes the suicide of a soldier, a theme which is often neglected in war poetry and one which I was intrigued to read about.

5. The Show – A fantastically strange poem which describes the war from a birds’ eye view, featuring some grim but apt imagery.

6. The Parable of the Old Man and Young – I like Owen’s clever re-appropriation of Biblical language to carry his powerful message across.

7. Sonnet (written at Teignmouth, on a Pilgrimage to Keats’s House) – The imagery here is beautiful and, though written before the war, it mirrors the melancholy of Owen’s later poems eerily.

Top 7: Children’s books

1. ‘The Mysterious Benedict Society’ by Trenton Lee Stewart
I thoroughly enjoyed this book about a group of children selected through a series of tests to infiltrate a mysterious institution. It was clever and full of puzzles, mysteries and surprises.

2. ‘Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism’ by Georgia Byng
I loved all the books in the Molly Moon series. The concept was simple, clever and original: an ordinary girl discovers a book of hypnotism which opens up a whole world of possibilities. Molly’s adventures captivated me; I feel like this book deserves more credit than it has been given.

3. ‘Permanent Rose’ by Hilary McKay
The Casson family who inhabit the world of ‘Permanent Rose’ are probably some of the most believable and loveable characters I’ve ever read about. This story of some of the problems the eccentric household faces was unputdownable.

4. ‘Journey to the River Sea’ by Eva Ibbotson
I was obsessed with this book for ages; I loved the unusual setting in Edwardian-era Brazil, the characters and the concept of a repressed boarding-school girl letting herself go and having an adventure.

5. ‘Fergus Crane’ by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
This is a very sweet story about a boy who learns about his mysterious past and embarks on a great adventure by the means of an unusual organisation called the ‘Fateful Voyage Trading Co.’ It is full of quirky characters and the beautiful illustrations complement the text perfectly.

6. ‘Hurricane Gold’ by Charlie Higson
I enjoyed all the ‘Young Bond’ books but this was by far my favourite. There is action, romance, an exciting Mexican setting, truly evil villains and plenty of plot twists. The idea of captives being given a chance to escape their prison via a deadly rat run was ingenious.

7. ‘The 13 Treasures’ by Michelle Harrison
Tanya can see faeries and when she goes to stay at her grandmother’s rambling old house, she finds that she is not the only one…This is a captivating story full of intrigue and magic, with the air of a true classic. I loved the idea of a group of children working together to solve an old and dangerous mystery; it is something that inspires me even now.

Top 7: Children’s Classics

1. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L. M. Montgomery

I loved this lyrical story of a quirky red-headed orphan who is unwanted at first but soon wins everyone round with her adventurous nature and vivid imagination. I liked the fact that the story followed Anne’s life over several years; I got to see her develop as a person and became very attached to all the characters.

2. ‘Good Wives’ by Louisa May Alcott

Although this book’s predecessor, ‘Little Women’, is more famous, I actually preferred ‘Good Wives’. It was more dramatic, with the March girls all grown up, developing love lives and learning more about themselves. There were some very moving passages and the ending seemed more final and satisfying than that of ‘Little Women’.

3. ‘Just William’ by Richmal Crompton

I loved all the stories in the ‘Just William’ series. They are just as witty and pertinent now as the day they were written and they still make me laugh out loud, which is rare in a book. The audiobooks narrated by Martin Jarvis are also excellent – he captures the vibrant cast of characters perfectly.

4. ‘Ballet Shoes’ by Noel Streatfeild

I adored this story of three very different sisters trying to make their way through stage school whilst learning some important life lessons. The characters are quirky and lovable, and the BBC adaptation was my favourite film when I was younger.

5. ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This story is both a haunting mystery and a testament to the power to change. I loved the fact that, unusually, the heroine was rude and spoiled – as was her cousin, Colin – but visiting the secret garden made them both see the error of their ways. Again, the BBC adaptation of this is very good.

6. ‘The BFG’ by Roald Dahl

Of all Roald Dahl’s books, ‘The BFG’ has the most charm. I loved Roald Dahl’s funny, inventive wordplay and I thought the concept of capturing and delivering dreams was brilliant.

7. ‘First Term at Malory Towers’ by Enid Blyton

I enjoyed all the ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ stories but I chose this one because you can’t beat the first book, as the characters get to know the school, the teachers and each other. I liked Darrell because she was an imperfect heroine who didn’t always get things right but gradually learned to control herself as the book progressed.

So those are my favourite children’s classics – which are yours?

Top 7: Books of the past year

When trying to decide on my top ten reads of the past year, I realised there were only seven I felt strongly about – I couldn’t make my mind up about the final three. Well, top tens are getting a little passé anyway, so here you are: alongside the seven wonders of the world, the seven dwarves, and the Secret Seven to name a few, I bring you my top seven favourite books of the past year!

1. ‘The Woodlanders’ by Thomas Hardy

I bought this book at a second-hand sale for the impressive sum of 1p and picked it up during my GCSEs, thinking it would be heavy going and therefore not too distracting from revision. How wrong I was! Though not one of Hardy’s better-known works, it is still beautifully written, romantic and evocative of an English country lifestyle that is no more, following the tangled lives and loves of four very different residents in the village of Little Hintock. And any book containing the phrase ‘frolicsome scrimmage‘ is worth reading for that reason alone.

2. ‘Body Double’ by Tess Gerritsen

I love a good thriller and the premise of this one was irresistible: a seasoned pathologist comes face-to-face with an identical copy of her own body in the lab. The plot was a bit far-fetched but full of surprises and kept me turning pages right the way through. Gerritsen is great at building believable characters and I loved the fact that the book followed the stories of various people: detective Jane Rizzoli, pathologist Maura Isles and kidnap victim Mattie Purvis, all of whom had their own demons to face.

3. ‘Us’ by David Nicholls

This book was both moving and laugh-out-loud funny as it chronicled biochemist Douglas Petersen’s disastrous attempts to win back the affections of his wife and son with a ‘Grand Tour’ around Europe. If you want to find out more about why I liked it so much, read my review here.

4. ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey

This book contained not one but two intriguing and beautifully interlinked mysteries: the whereabouts of the main character Maud’s friend Elizabeth and the disappearance of her sister over fifty years ago. In addition to this, the whole thing is narrated by Maud, who has dementia: a difficult subject, but one that was pulled off with tact and authenticity. It was sad, but thought-provoking, poignant and original: well worth a read.

5. ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy

A deserving Booker winner, this is a very moving book which tells the tragic story of a family in India who ‘tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how‘. The exotic setting was almost tangible and it was fascinating to immerse myself in a culture different from my own. I adored the quirky writing style and loved almost all of the characters.

6. ‘The Demons of Ghent’ by Helen Grant

This book is actually the second in the ‘Forbidden Spaces’ series, but works well as a standalone novel too. It continues the story of Veerle, who has escaped death once but now finds herself facing it again as a vicious killer stalks the rooftops of Ghent. ‘Demons’ contains everything I love about Helen Grant’s books: family drama, a compelling romance, a page-turning murder mystery and a beautiful and atmospheric setting. Her best so far!

7. ‘Death in Holy Orders’ by P.D. James

When the body of a student at St Anselm’s theological college is found, his father rejects the verdict of accidental death and asks Commander Adam Dalgliesh to investigate. This is a classic detective novel with a cocktail of interesting and well-drawn characters, in an atmospheric and deliciously creepy setting. Most of the characters had their dirty secrets and there were several surprising revelations. I couldn’t put it down!