BookElf’s Top Reads Ever (so far…)

It’s the evening shift and I’m on my own. The shelves are neat, and shelving done. The New Book List is updated, the gate count inserted onto the spreadsheet. The students are happily tapping away, and all I have to do is relax and decide once and for all my Top Reads which I would recommend to anybody (and frequently do!).
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I first read this at university when we were learning about structure and pace within the short story. It is a first person account of a Victorian woman whose MCP husband and doctor have decided is mentally ill, and who is kept locked in the attic room of a house where she can ‘recover’, away from the stimulation’s of daily life such as thinking, reading, writing, getting to know her new-born son, that sort of thing. She becomes gradually more and more obsessed with the room’s hideous yellow wallpaper, and what lies beneath it, until by the end of the book she has actually been driven mad. Chills flood you in the last paragraph, and hate seethes for the idiot man who has locked her away. What is worse is this story happened to her, and to thousands of other women in the Victorian period who dared to think for themselves, or want a life of their own choosing.
If you enjoy this, then I recommend Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing of Esme Lawrence, which is totally different in style, but still excellent, a fun book for a long train journey say, also about the treatment of ‘madness’ in women, this time in the 1920s.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
If you know anything about Jewish history you will appreciate this book. Rachel and Leah stand as good wife and good mother respectively, and if you’ve read the Handmaids Tail then you’ll know about Bilpal. Diamant paints the story as a nomadic family, with all of Jacob’s ‘wives’ being sisters, and describes the family from just before Jacob arrives in their lives, until the time of Joseph in Egypt. This book is very femo-centric, with long lush passages describing child birth, periods (the idea of having five days off to sit on the straw in a lovely tent and gossip with your mates is something that, come the revolution, I will bringing BACK! I am unclean! I must therefore holiday!), the sisterhood in general. It is flowery and feminine and everything that goes with it, which I would normally be disparaging of, but it made me weep for about four straight hours after I finished it and therefore has to be in The List!
If you like this then read Four Mothers by Shilpa Horn (translated from Hebrew), which would be at No. 11 if such a thing were aloud and is to be honest better written than this book, but the ending didn’t have such oomph.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
So very very very very funny, this novel defined my sense of humour for years (the Quivering Brethren, Something narsty in the woodshed, Old Churches, The Parrot….). Flora Poste is everything a heroine should be, I kinda want to be her. When her parents die she goes (against the better judgement of her posh London friends) to live with strange relations the Starkadders in the country. The Starkadders are a mixed bag of weird; Judith is a manic-depressive obsessed with her son Seth: Seth is a ranging bounder obsessed with himself: Husband Amos is a Preacher of the Night and the matriarchal Aunt Ada Doom saw something narsty in the woodshed and therefore never leaves the farm (or allows anyone else to). With the good sense typical of the 1920s, Flora takes on these characters and more, and sorts their lives out for them. The book is a damning parody of the wishy washy hit-yourself-on-the-brow-look-at-the-milk-blood-of-the-setting-sun nonsense that is pastoral romance (sorry, but it is!) and is just too good.
I Capture The Castle by Dodi Smith
A proper coming of age masterpiece, this rambling and often odd tail is that of Cassandra Mortmain (who again, I would love to be) and her dysfunctional family growing up in a dilapidated castle in rural England in the 1920s ish. Cassandra lives with her spoilt beautiful sister, depressive writer father and pre-hippy stepmother who likes to wonder around the moors naked but is the only one keeping the family together. When a rich family of Americans moves into the neighborhood the Mortmain’s lives are changed forever as the two sister’s learn about life, love, and growing up (God, I sound like an advert for the film, which is also excellent and stars your man from the recent BBC Emma- don’t worry she’s not miscast in this!). Funny and tragic in equal measure, the story weaves along beautifully, it is so well crafted and Cassandra is just so hard to dislike as a narrator. She should have written a sequel as its one of those ‘what happens next’ books, and I’m waiting for one to be published that I can be very negative about like all the P&P ones (the worst one being the Mary Bennett one, awful!).
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Another 1920s/30s comedy, this time autobiography. Gerry’s family hate cold, wet, miserable Britain so much they leave to live in Corfu, which comes across as simply magical. The family are again made up by a whole host of colourful characters (noticing a theme, are we?), my favourite of which is Mother. Made me laugh about 100 times the first time I read it and still does. You wish you were part of this family, who charm everyone they meet with their strange, yet beautiful ways.
I have not read Gerald Durrell’s other books, which is very bad of me, but if someone were to buy me them for Christmas I would very much like to spend an afternoon on the sofa with them as he is an excellent writer and has comedic timing down to a tee.
Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Bathsheba Evergreen has inherited a farm which is falling down around her when a man from her past Gabriel Oak, who was a Shepard until his sheep tragically (and how) top themselves, comes to save her and act as Bailiff, they fall in love eventually and everything is great. The End. But of course, it ain’t like that because it is Hardy and he is a genius and if I could I would have everything he’s written in here. This is my favourite because of the bit where Fanny Robin, who is heavily pregnant and abandoned by the best villain in the whole world Sgt Troy (boo hiss) is walking up a hill towards the workhouse to give birth, when you know she won’t come out of it again, and everything is just hopeless and she’s counting the lampposts to keep herself going and you’ve just got tears running down your cheeks and you know, you know what she’s feeling because YOU’VE BEEN THERE MAN, YOU’VE JUST BEEN THERE!!!!!
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It’s just lovely and the film is sooooo crap. All the interlocking stories work, the characters are real, the descriptions of the tropical but ever so polite landscape and so vivid, its just a really really good book and a beautiful love story and gives you hope that, really, everything is going to be alright in the end. You do spend the first read flicking through remembering who everyone is, though, especially if you are not used to Spanish fiction, so you might want to note yourself a little family tree, or is that too geeky for words?
Forever Amber by Katherine Windsor
Is about four inches thick and is about women in Restoration England. Do not let this put you off, it is brilliant, my desert island read and every single woman I have lent it two (three, more to come!) has lost a fortnight to this book. Amber StClare, the heroine, is a bold strumpet of a ho who goes from illegitimate country wench to mistress of the Kind of England in 700 pages, via every single part of London in the reign of Charles II you can think of, the theatres are there, the dueling, the highwaymen, the fire, the plague, the fops and dandies, the rogering and the corruption of the courts. You will hate her, be prepared for this, but it is so incredibly addictive you won’t care!
It is also historically accurate, as it was written after Windsor’s husband did his dissertation on the period, so for anyone thinking history trash, no, not history trash.
Nicobobinus by Terry Jones
Best children’s book every written. Rosie said to her best friend to Nicobobinus (the most unfortunate child to ever stick his tongue out at the Prime Minister), lets find the land of the dragons, Nicobobinus said he would rather not, and anyway, he wasn’t sure if he could. Yes you can, said Rosie, you can do anything…
Happy Reading!

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