What makes a good book title?

Monday, March 2, 2015 | 4 comments

Last month's discussion topic was "Why do so many books have the same title?" Not exactly the same title, of course, but there are some titling trends that have gotten out of hand. I was glad to find that I'm not the only one who is bothered by this --  now, if only publishers would pay attention...

Books on the Table commented with a link to this post about titles, which got me thinking about good titles. Ideally, they should be unique, memorable, and capture something of the essence of the book in question, with extra points for cleverness and humor. When I went looking, I found a lot of run-of-the-mill sameness, but also many original and creative titles to celebrate. Here are some of my favorites; please do add yours in the comments.

What's Bred in the Bone - Robertson Davies
To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
A Ring of Endless Light - Madeleine L'Engle
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon
East of Eden - John Steinbeck
Nine Coaches Waiting - Mary Stewart  

Period Piece - Gwen Raverat
Time and Again - Jack Finney
Dogsbody - Diana Wynne Jones
The War Between the Tates - Alison Lurie
I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde
The Darkangel - Meredith Ann Pierce

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - E.L. Konigsburg
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat - Oliver Sacks
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Possession - A.S. Byatt
Fingersmith  - Sarah Waters
Persuasion - Jane Austen
Beloved - Toni Morrison
Farthing - Jo Walton
Wicked - Gregory Maguire
She - H. Rider Haggard

The Mouse and the Motorcycle - Beverly Cleary
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth - E.L. Konigsburg
My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell
My Life and Hard Times - James Thurber
The Professor and the Madman - Simon Winchester
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Five Children and It - E. Nesbit
Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones

Mysterious and Evocative
The Dark Is Rising -  Susan Cooper
Midnight Is a Place - Joan Aiken
The Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay
A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
Where the Wild Things Are- Maurice Sendak
The Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster
The King Must Die - Mary Renault

What book titles do you love, and why?

Posted for the 2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge, hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight.  
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Pieces of Truth: Alias Grace

Friday, February 27, 2015 | 12 comments

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (Anchor, 1996)


Although there were many books I should have been reading and other things I should have been doing, once I started Alias Grace they all went by the wayside; I could not put it down. The subject matter is sensational in itself: the real-life case of 16-year-old housemaid Grace Marks, accused in 1843 of collaborating with her lover to murder her employer and his housekeeper (who also happened to be his lover). Atwood goes beyond the exploitative and voyeuristic thrills of such a story to give us a convincing, yet tantalizingly ambiguous portrait of a notorious woman that shakes up our assumptions about gender, class, sexuality, and morality.

The main thread of the story takes place several years into Grace's incarceration -- her death sentence as an accessory to murder was commuted to a life sentence, which many sympathizers tried to overturn further. A young doctor with an interest in new scientific ideas about the mind is interviewing Grace, trying to bring unconscious material to light that might exonerate her. As she tells her story (with what degree of veracity is never entirely certain), his own life begins to unravel in a disturbing way.

In this murder mystery turned inside out, the question of "whodunit" becomes more than an effort to point the finger at a guilty party and feel cleansed thereby of our own misdeeds. Who does our deeds, really? What is the nature of the human mind and soul? What is happening in the shadows of our consciousness, where we scarcely dare to venture? Through an assemblage of various voices, pieced together like one of the quilts that Grace excels at creating, a picture starts to emerge, but it does not give us a fixed and definitive "answer." Not unlike one of those quilt designs that can be seen in multiple ways -- boxes or windows? -- it shifts before our sight, as multi-layered and difficult to grasp as human awareness itself.

Thanks to Girl with Her Head in a Book for inviting me to join in a readalong of this terrific book. If you decide to pick it up as well, just be sure to set aside a couple of days -- once you fall under the spell of Atwood's lucid and compelling storytelling, you're going to find it hard to attend to anything else for a while.

Review copy source: E-book from library

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Publisher Spotlight: David R. Godine

Tuesday, February 24, 2015 | 7 comments
Today, when giant mega-conglomeration is the rule in publishing (as in so much else), it's heartening to find that some independent publishers still continue to foster the individual spirit in the face of the pressures of mass production.

One of these -- perhaps one of the best -- happens to be just around the corner from me: David R. Godine, Publisher, operating out of offices in Boston and Jaffrey, NH. I've been a fan of this house since my high school days, which is when I first began to order and pore over publishers' catalogs. High standards of design and production have always been a Godine hallmark, and surely played a role in shaping my taste for beautiful books and my late-blooming interest in graphic design.

Godine started out in 1970 printing letterpress, limited-edition books in an old barn in Brookline, Massachusetts. Though that endeavor grew and expanded into a more conventional publishing house, it has remained idiosyncratic and individual in its vision. I can't say it better than the Godine website:

The list is deliberately eclectic and features works that many other publishers can't or won't support, books that won't necessarily become bestsellers but that still deserve publication. In a world of spin-offs and commercial 'product,' Godine's list stands apart by offering original fiction and non-fiction of the highest rank, rediscovered masterworks, translations of outstanding world literature, poetry, art, photography, and beautifully designed books for children.

The Godine books I have acquired over the years are well-loved favorites, including The Chronicles of Pantouflia, a lost classic by Andrew Lang, editor of the Rainbow Fairy Books; an exquisite illustrated edition of Anne of Green Gables; and The Alphabet Abcedarium by Richard Firmage, a fascinating history of the alphabet as well as a gorgeous gallery of typography. All of these are sadly out of print, but the current Godine list includes many new and rediscovered treasures that are well worth a look. They were kind enough to send me a couple of titles from their current children's list, both of which which represent their dedication to publishing uncommon and one-of-a-kind works in beautiful, lasting editions.

One of these is The Adventures of Uncle Lubin, a nonsense tale from the Edwardian age, with exuberant, fantastical illustrations by W. Heath Robinson. As the oddly garbed Uncle searches for young Peter, who has been stolen away by a wicked Bag-bird, his adventures over land and sea, and even into outer space, are told with a deadpan humor that will tickle young children. Meanwhile, the ornate, detailed Art Nouveau illustrations with their masterfully sinuous lines can be pored over for hours. The playful interaction of text and images is part of the fun, and this edition painstakingly recreates the typesetting of the original.

A very different aesthetic is displayed by a thoroughly modern picture book, The Lonely Typewriter, written by Peter Ackerman and illustrated by Max Dalton. Poor Pablo has to write a paper on penguins, but the computer is broken. What will he do? His mom's typewriter, that has been stashed in the attic for years, comes to the rescue! An alliterative text and quirky color-block pictures will capture the interest of young readers, and very possibly pique their interest in antiquated office machines.

I hope that I have piqued your interest as well, and that the next time you're browsing in a bookstore or library you'll look for that DRG calligraphy on the spine or title page. It's a sure sign of quality.

Review copy source: Finished books from publisher

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Month in Review: February 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015 | 2 comments

It's the last Sunday in February, which means it's already time for another ECBR review. My months for review purposes are not the same as calendar months, but I'm ready for February to be over anyway. Come on March, bring me some spring!

The most popular post this month was my Book Blogger Discussion Challenge topic, Why do so many books have the same title? Here I got to vent about certain title trends that I find are getting a bit out of hand. Check it out to see if you agree with me.

Otherwise, I focused more on books from the last few years than has been my wont lately, reviewing a couple of new releases and working my way through some of the finalists for the Cybils Awards. I'm glad to feel a bit more up-to-date in my reading now, though I still love discovering classics from the past as well.

Books I reviewed

Other features
  • The Witch Hunter's Tale - I interviewed the author of this new "midwife mystery" set in York, England at the time of the English Civil War.
  • Sampling the Cybils - My impressions of the seven finalists for the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category.

Other books read
  • Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Mattheson
  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay - Back to the Classics challenge
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood  - Review to come 
  • West of the Moon by Margi Preus
  • Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan - Review to come
  • Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (reread)

Some favorite posts from other bloggers

Other cool things
  • Issue Number Four of Shiny New Books is out! And I was thrilled to have two of my reviews included in it: The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead and The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam. The whole issue is splendid as usual; please have a look.
  • A special Valentine's Day feature, two weeks of posts about Falling in Love with Books at Bookish Illuminations. (My post on Beauty by Robin McKinley can be found on February 11!)
  • Did you realize the 1960s was (were?) a golden age of children's literature? In honor of their 50th anniversary, here's a list of some of the best fantasy/adventure books from 1965.

I'd love to hear about your month! Please leave a comment or link to your review post.

Linked in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer
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Sampling the Cybils

Friday, February 20, 2015 | 16 comments
When award decisions come up, I have seldom read enough of the nominees to have an opinion about the worthiness of the winner. This year, I decided to read the finalists in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Children's and Young Adult Book Bloggers' Literary Awards (aka the Cybils), which looked like a lovely assortment to spend some time with.

With one exception, I enjoyed all of these books very much, and wouldn't have been sorry to see any of them the winner. The swashbuckling space battle of The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra and the heart-warming squirrel epic Nuts to You were two very different tales of adventure that both left me with a smile on my face. With Greenglass House I was drawn into a new and fascinating world of smugglers, stained glass, and a mysterious inn and its inhabitants; at the end I didn't want to leave. The Castle Behind Thorns had another large, mystery-haunted structure at its heart, in the midst of an enchanting fairy tale woven around themes of mending and forgiveness. Boys of Blur, a supernatural thriller set in the Florida sugarcane fields, was impressive for its taut storytelling, vividly described setting, and memorable characters.

Of the finalists, perhaps my favorite (though Greenglass House and The Castle Behind Thorns were not far behind) was The Swallow, a spooky yet touching story that concerned two families with some painful secrets they need to accept, and two girls whose friendship has the potential to bring healing to both of them. I'm not usually a fan of the "paranormal" genre, but this twist on the "girl who can see ghosts" tale was not about giving readers gratuitous and ultimately unsatisfying thrills, but about expanding our awareness in order to become more open toward and accepting of ourselves and others.

The one book I didn't finish, The Luck Uglies, a series opener set in an imaginary city threatened by slavering monsters, had nothing really wrong with it; it just failed to capture my interest after 100 pages. I have to confess that it surprised me that this was the book that won the award! Different readers have different tastes, clearly, and mine are different from those of the award committee.

In general, though, I believe the committee has succeeded admirably in recognizing books that "combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal." Funny, imaginative, lyrical, suspenseful -- these seven books have it all, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to readers young and old.

Review copy sources: Library/purchased
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The Witch Hunter's Tale: Author interview with Sam Thomas

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | 4 comments
Today, I'm pleased to welcome author Sam Thomas to talk about his latest "Midwife Mystery," The Witch Hunter's Tale, published by St. Martin's Minotaur in January, 2015. This third installment in Sam's series about a mystery-solving midwife in seventeenth century York, England, follows The Midwife's Tale and The Harlot's Tale but can also be read on its own.

In this thrilling novel, Sam takes us deep into the dark streets of the ancient city, unfolding a tale of the terrible witch hunts that flared into fanaticism during an unstable era in history. By centering on a midwife as his main character, Sam also illuminates the frequently overlooked stories of the brave and compassionate women who struggled to bring healing into the lives of others during this turbulent time, as well as those who would use their position in a more unscrupulous way. With its combination of deep human interest and dynamic real-life events, The Witch Hunter's Tale is a great read for lovers of historical mysteries, and especially for those who, like me, have a special interest in the history and literary associations of Yorkshire.

Sam Thomas is a former professor of history at the University of Alabama and currently teaches secondary school students at the University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy, and has published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to colonial Africa. Sam kindly answered some of my questions about the history behind the mysteries, and I hope you'll find his perspective as fascinating as I do.

You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction? What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your books?

The jump into fiction came at the same time I quite college teaching to move to an independent high school. (Long story there!) The problem was that as a historian I’d become fascinated by the history of midwives and could not bear the thought of abandoning them entirely. I knew that no high school would give me a year off to write a history of midwifery, so I thought a novel might take its place. And it seems to have!

My goal when I write fiction is more or less unchanged from my non-fiction days. I want to write about the past in a way that is true and engages the reader’s heart and mind. The past is full of amazing stories, so there is no reason at all for it to be dry.

What do you find most intriguing about your the era and place of your series -- northern England in the time of the battles between Royalists and Puritans?

I was originally drawn to this period because of its religious diversity. (My own family is a mix of Quaker, Jewish, and Catholic. Paging Dr. Freud.) You had the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers, all running about at the same time. I wanted to know how these groups related to each other: when did they fight, when did they get along, and why?

Then you throw in the Civil War, the trial and execution of the King on charges of treason...really, what more could you want?

Your central mystery-solving midwife character is based on a real person, Bridget Hodgson. You go into her fascinating historical record in detail on your website, but can you briefly describe who she was and how you found her?

The ‘historical’ Bridget Hodgson was a midwife in York during and after the English Civil War. I stumbled across her will entirely by accident, and immediately fell in love. I had this image of midwives as elderly crones of dubious reputation with their neighbors, but there she was, wealthy, well-born, and proud of her work as a midwife, and the more I learned, the more I loved.

She was from a gentry family, the Baskervilles (she had a coat of arms and perhaps a hound), married the son of the Lord Mayor of York, and – this is the great part – named all her god-daughters after herself.

It is one thing to give your own daughter your name (she did this too), but to name other people’s daughters after you? That takes some confidence.

Why did you choose to make a midwife the focus of a series of mystery novels?

It actually was the other way around. I knew I wanted to write about midwives, and mysteries seemed the way to go.

First, it made it easier to find a plot. You start with one dead body, and you end with another one. Easy as pie!

Second, it made sense. Midwives were a part of the criminal justice system at the time, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide and rape to witchcraft. And if a female prisoner were sentenced to death and claimed to be pregnant, the midwife was the one who checked out her story.

Literally, midwives decided who lived and died!

It seems that there is a fair amount of mystery about midwives themselves -- historians don't really know much about their lives and work in the pre-modern era. What are some of the questions that are being researched?

Man, great question. I think the one key question focuses on the relationship between midwives and mothers. So little is known about this, but it obviously was key to many women’s lives. How did mothers pick midwives and what criteria did they use? What made a midwife good at her job?

The other – even bigger – question was how men took over childbirth. The curious thing about this is that it is unlikely that the male midwives were forced on unwilling mothers. Rather, mothers sought out male practitioners. The question we can’t answer is why? What happened in English society that made this change possible?

In this particular book, the terrible phenomenon of witch hunting, which was at its height at the time, is central to the plot. What do think fueled this hysteria? How do you hope your fictional treatment can help us understand it?

Between 1400 and 1800, approximately five hundred English women were executed as witches. Of these, nearly three hundred were killed in a single decade, the 1640s. So there is no question that the witch panics were a product of a very specific time and place.

The best book on this is Malcom Gaskill’s Witchfinders. I can’t do his thesis justice here, but in short he argues that the chaos of the civil war drove people to violence. Misfortune was a sign of God’s anger, and hunting witches was a way to please Him.

Add to this the collapse of government authority, which ordinarily kept accusations from getting out of hand, and the conditions were just right for this sort of thing.

I think the key idea is that witch hunters thought they were doing God’s work, and often were terrified of the women they put on trial. Obviously I’m not defending them, but it is important to understand the past.

If a reader is so lucky as to have a chance to visit the city of York, what sites do you recommend for getting a sense of the past?

The great thing about York is that it’s small and compact. See the cathedral, and pay for the extras. (You have to pay to get into the Chapter House, walk on the roof, and go down into the crypt, but do it!)

Walk the city wall – it’s amazing – and then get lost. There are old churches everywhere, and each one is a marvel.

And, do you have recommendations for further reading about your novel's time, place, and subjects, either fiction or nonfiction (not too technical for us non-historians)?

Witchfinders is good, I think, and available in paperback. For fiction, I’d recommend Susanna Calkins’s Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the first in her series. She’s also a historian, we have the same publisher, and we each have two sons of the same age. Had we not met, I’d think we might be the same person. Except I’m taller.

If you want to go a bit earlier, there’s C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake. One of these (Sovereign?) takes place in York, at least in part. They are quite good!

Thank you, Sam! Your decision to write a "midwife mystery" now makes perfect sense, and I for one am very glad you did. I look forward to reading more about Bridget and her adventures.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Witch Hunter's Tale. Please visit the tour page for more stops with reviews, interviews, and other great content.


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Hidden Treasure: Shadows on the Rock

Friday, February 13, 2015 | 6 comments

Willa Cather, Shadows on the Rock (1931; in Later Novels, Library of America, 1990)

In Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather departed from the prairie narratives for which she is most well known to write a historical novel about late seventeenth century Quebec. Her central characters are a French apothecary who longs to return home, but is bound by love of his patron, Count Frontenac; and the apothecary's young daughter Cecile, who feels deeply connected to the new country of Canada. Around them come and go a wonderful array of characters, from Frontenac himself, to the two very different bishops who rule the spiritual life of the Catholic province, to an intrepid young trapper, to a prostitute's child that Cecile has befriended.

At the risk of gushing, I'll say that I simply loved everything about this book. I loved the descriptions of the city, and the details of an apothecary's life and work in this long-ago time. I loved Cecile and her father and sympathized with their dilemma of whether to stay in the new country or return to the old. I loved the glimpses into other characters' lives, whether in cloister or trapper's hut or castle. I savored every moment spent with them and was sorry to leave them at the end.

Notre Dame des Victoires
Don't go into Shadows on the Rock expecting anything in the way of an exciting plot. The novel generally follows the course of a year in the city, starting from the significant time in late autumn when the last ships leave for France and the colonists are left on their own for the winter. It meanders from one character and incident to another, in a series of vignettes that together build a rich portrait of a place and time. Another book by Cather that I also read recently, her final novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl, followed a similar pattern but with sometimes awkward or clumsy results (perhaps due to the author's health problems in later life that made it difficult for her to write). In Shadows on the Rock, on the other hand, I felt that Cather was absolutely in control of her material, creating a integrated if impressionistic work of art in which no word is wasted or out of place. Passage after passage moved me with its beautiful language that lifted the novel into the realm of poetry:
She put the sled-rope underneath her arms, gave her weight to it, and began to climb. A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbors' houses. If the Count should go back with the ships next summer, and her father with him, how could she bear  it, she wondered. On a foreign shore, in a foreign city (yes, for her a foreign shore), would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one's own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea.

The "rock" in winter
I was reminded of a book I also love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which also deals with a Catholic settlement in the New World (Spanish colonists in Peru), and has an equally luminous writing style. It's ironic that Wilder's book was a highly-acclaimed blockbuster, while Cather's received tepid reviews, although it still sold well. In the four years between their publication dates (1927 and 1931) the Great Depression had hit, and socially engaged fiction was the fashion, not quiet, undramatic novels about backwaters of history. From a vantage point of years, though, Cather seems to me to be one of our most understatedly brilliant writers, and Shadows on the Rock one of her most masterful works.

This is also a frontier story, and gives insight into a part of our North American history that is worth knowing about. I'm eager now to visit Quebec City, that "rock" in the St. Lawrence river that became the foundation stone of a nation, and learn more about its fascinating blend of the old world and the new. After reading Cather's magnificent novel, I feel that I have already been there in spirit.

Review copy source: Hardcover from library
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A book I fell in love with

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | 4 comments

Today, I'm over at Bookish Illuminations as part of a two-week celebration of "Books that we fell in love with." What a great idea for Valentine's Day! I'm talking about Beauty by Robin McKinley, one of my very favorite fairy tale retellings. Please check it out, and be sure to visit all the posts from February 5 to 20 for more lovely book recommendations.
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Words and Pictures: The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

Monday, February 9, 2015 | 0 comments
The kitten has a luxurious, Bohemian, unpuritanical nature. It eats six meals a day, plays furiously with a toy mouse and a piece of rope, and suddenly falls into a deep sleep whenever the fit takes it. It never feels the need to do anything to justify its existence; it does not want to be a Good Citizen; it has never heard of Service. It knows that it is beautiful and delightful, and it considers that a sufficient contribution to the general good. And in return for its beauty and charm it expects fish, meat, and vegetables, a comfortable bed, a chair by the grate fire, and endless petting. The people who yelp so persistently for social security should take a lesson from kittens; they have only to be beautiful and charming, and they will get it without asking.
Robertson Davies, The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1986)
Image: Girl with a Cat by Auguste Renoir (from Harriet Devine's Blog)
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New Release Review: How To Be a Heroine

Friday, February 6, 2015 | 18 comments

Samantha Ellis, How To Be a Heroine (Vintage Originals, 2015)

I remember well the day a friend casually said, upon seeing some book lying around at my place (I think it was The Hobbit), "I don't read fiction." Now, I understood of course that there were different tastes in the fictional realm, and that Tolkien was not everyone's cup of tea. But to not read fiction at all? Just to write it off as boring and a waste of time? I knew there must be people like that out there, but they were usually more distant from me, belonging to foreign tribes of the soul, not friends that I would invite into my inner sanctum. I realized with dismay that I would have to cross a great divide to really understand such a person.

What a relief, then to open the pages of How To Be a Heroine and meet someone who decidedly belongs to my tribe. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, reflects on her own life in terms of the books that defined and shaped her as she grew up, and particularly in terms of the heroines who showed her different ways to be a girl and then a woman. At a point in midlife when she is questioning where she is, how she got there and where she is going, rereading her favorites turns out to be more than just an exercise in nostalgia. We learn that fictional worlds don't remain static, but can transform and show us new sides of ourselves as we gain experience and knowledge. Sometimes the results are disappointing, sometimes illuminating, but always fascinating in their revelation of the eternal enchantment of fiction.

As the child of Iraqi Jewish refugee parents, raised within an insular ethnic community, one could question what Ellis would find to relate to in the heroines of classic English literature: Elizabeth Bennett, Lucy Honeychurch, Anne of Green Gables. Happily, she shows us that in such much-loved and long-lasting works of fiction are to be found universal human concerns, which shine beneath the trappings of time and culture. To take but one example, the "marriage plot" is no less powerful in her own family, which expects her to marry a nice Iraqi Jew and keeps a tier of her Bat Mitzvah cake in the freezer for that day, than in Jane Austen's society.

No literary snob, Ellis shows that there's also wisdom to be gleaned from less elevated fare, such as The Valley of the Dolls, Lace, and the novels of Jilly Cooper. How has the very idea of what it means to be a woman changed over the last two hundred years? What can we learn from the trials and struggles of these characters, and of their writers? How have they fought to be recognized as human beings, as creators, as people with rights and feelings of their own? Written with passion and verve, How To Be a Heroine is a marvelous personal exploration of these questions, articulate, lucid, and never pretentious.

If I were to meet Samantha Ellis in person, we wouldn't agree about everything. I would question her selection of the homicidal maniac Heathcliff as a romantic ideal, and she would wonder how I could find Beth March in Little Women anything other than disgustingly insipid. But we would definitely agree about one thing: reading fiction is one way, perhaps the most important way, that we have learned to create the story of our own lives. If you, too, look to books as touchstones of your life, and particularly to those inhabited by feisty, creative, and courageous heroines, then you will surely want to have the joy of revisiting them through this excellent consideration of all they have to offer.

Originally published in the UK in 2014; US release date February 3, 2015
Review copy source: ARC from publisher
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