In March 2017, Virago Books started a social media initiative called #BooksForChange Throughout the month, readers were invited to share books by women writers that they loved, that were special, or that they would recommend, using the hashtag.
March was chosen as it coincided with International Women’s Day (March 8th). Each day the theme was set by Virago Books (see the table above) and, daily, users across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, would post details of those books that meant the most to them for that theme.
The purpose of the campaign was to increase the visibility of women writers, to direct readers to books by women writers they may like to read, and also to celebrate the great achievements of women writers across literature.
As those who follow me on Twitter will know, I participated in this campaign assiduously. I was so pleased that many found the thread interesting, and were excited to hear about so many of these books. I was also asked to log my selection in a blog, so that it could be shared widely, and also as a single-place resource for reference.
So here is that list!
#1 The Book That Made Me Feminist
My University years were very much my formative years. I am so old that I went to Uni long before social media, when the internet was only just in its infancy, so there wasn’t this great wealth of awareness and sharing of experiences of what it was to be a woman, or the various waves of feminism.
In my first year at Manchester Uni, I picked up this book from the table at Waterstones (a table that would serve me well! See later posts) and, well, it changed my life. This book resonated with me and taught me so much.
The Beauty Myth was a seismic hit when it was published, articulating the construction and artifice of female beauty, how it is designed by men for men, and how it has been commodified by the beauty and fashion industries for profit. A true game-changer and a key text for contemporary feminism.
#2 Hidden From History
I came across Rebel Girls by Jill Liddington as I was researching the play I wrote on the Pankhurst family. Much is known (and written) about Emmeline and her two elder daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, but her youngest, Adela, is almost completely overlooked. This despite the fact that she went to prison many times for suffragette action and was repeatedly force-fed (which Christabel never endured) and was subsequently banished by her mother to Australia when she later developed depression and fell out with her over the violence and suffering.
I needed this info for my play, but this book also shone a light on the many anonymous participants in the fight for the vote, including the young weaver, Dora Thewlis, at the centre of this famous photo.
This whole book is a great testament to those girls and women who rejected the roles assigned to them in Edwardian society and battled hard for the rights we have today.
#3 Stories of Girlhood
If I were to pinpoint the moment that the possibility of books, the world of literature, came alive for me, it was as I was reading The Serpent by Jane Gaskell, the first book in her sci-fi series, The Atlan Saga.
This book is not famous. It is, sadly, not well-known. But it is one of the most compelling and exciting stories of girlhood possible, especially for readers like me who, when I was younger, were more drawn to fantasy than reality.
My Mother bought this for me, rather spontaneously, as she was browsing an obscure book shop in Virginia Water. And thank god she did. The story follows Cija, a young princess who has been brought up in a world only of women. But her mother’s kingdom is held to ransom by a powerful Army, led by a lizard General, who march through the realm as they head on to Atlan (read, Atlantis) to plunder it for its wealth.
As collateral, Cija is taken by the General. But her mother has told her daughter to kill the General before he gets to Atlan, to save all the kingdoms that will suffer in his wake. It is an extraordinarily compelling adventure wrapped up in a coming-of-age tale.
#4 Read in One Sitting
This one was an easy one for me. It’s only a short book from Shirley Jackson anyway but We Have Always Lived in the Castle is utterly mesmerising. I was completely drawn into Merricat’s dark, unsettling world.
This book is a classic but if you are unfamiliar with it, the story follows the remnants of the Blackwood family: two sisters, Merricat and Constance, who live with their wheelchair-bound uncle in a huge house in isolation from the small community that live in the nearby village. The other family members were all murdered in a poisoning six years before. The villagers believe Constance was guilty of this crime, though she was acquitted. So, instead, it falls to the younger sister, Merricat, to provide the only link with the village. But when a lost relative comes to town, she is forced to protect her family from those looking to exploit what they have left.
This was Shirley Jackson’s last book. It has been described as ghost story without a ghost, and there is this gothic, haunting feel to the book. It casts a spell this book, it really does. Once read, never forgotten.
I don’t have heroes, but, if I did, Anna Politkovskaya would be the one.
Now, we can all see the darkness of Putin, see the man for who he is. The assassinations and attempted murder of all who cross him is now widely reported. But the reason, truly, that he has been exposed, that we know all about his corruption, embezzlement and criminality, is because of Anna.
She was Russia’s most famous journalist, and she worked tirelessly to expose Putin’s crimes right from when he first became Prime Minister in 1999, to when she was murdered on October 7, 2006 (Putin’s birthday, btw).
In that time, it was her work in Chechnya, the scenes of repeated and terrible war crimes by the Russian forces, and her investigations into atrocities such as the Dubrovka theatre siege and Beslan that not only exposed both war crimes and the desperate exploitation and treatment of impoverished Russian soldiers, but also raised the very real possibility that Putin is guilty of aiding and abetting terrorist attacks on Russian soil to bolster his popularity and secure his power base. She is desperately missed.
#6 Favourite First Line
“I hate myself and I want to die.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel’s era-defining Prozac Nation is probably the single most influential book on both my reading and writing. This was another book that I picked up from the table at Waterstones in Manchester. It had only just been published and its reputation as a game-changer for confessional memoirs and women writers, as well as the frank depiction and discussion of depression, was only just beginning to emerge.
When you start writing, conventional wisdom preaches two things: don’t write a memoir, and don’t write in the first person. Elizabeth blew that out the water in Prozac Nation. This is ferocious, angry stuff. And, as you can tell from the first line, this book is on the front foot all the way.
Elizabeth is completely unapologetic in her retelling of her battle with depression that has lasted from childhood. She portrays herself as vicious, nasty and, at times, completely unsympathetic as she battles her mother, the medical system, but mostly herself, in a bid just to find some balance and equilibrium. It remains miles ahead of everything that has followed in its wake.
#7 Short Stories
Ah, we all had to have an Atwood in our lists somewhere, and this was mine!
Stone Mattress is a fine collection of short stories. There’s plenty of darkness and even oddities in here, but there is also great wit and, as ever, a superb eye for detail and compelling suspense.
What binds these nine short stories together is death. Someone is either about to die, is already dead, or death is hanging in the air. We’ve a woman haunted by her dead husband, and an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome who persistently sees little people around her. We’ve genetic abnormalities mistaken for vampires, and a murder many years in the planning. There’s as much glee and mystery in these tales as there is drama and vengeance.
A superb collection from a great writer at the top of her game.
#8 The Book That Changed My Life
Not so much a single book that changed my life, but a single book haul. These four books made up my first book haul in my first year at Uni. It was the mid-1990s, I was at University in Manchester, and I suddenly felt like I was at the centre of so much that was new at the time. And these books were a part of that.
Three of them were at the forefront of the wave of female voices that were suddenly emerging across popular culture. Confident, funny, insecure, angry, complex… After the dry, male-centric texts of my school days, it was a rush to hear female voices that sounded just like mine. I wasn’t the same person by the time I’d finished these. It’s interesting to me that I think I’m still looking for confessional memoirs like these, and I have been ever since. Perhaps it was here that the seeds were sown for my own, Banking on Burlesque, which came out almost twenty years to the day after I bought these.
#9 In Her Words
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans was a sensation when it was first published in 1991. In it, Jung writes three biographies – those of her grandmother, her mother and herself – to bear witness to ordinary lives in China during tumultuous times, and, specifically, to shine a light on what it was to be a woman in pre-Revolutionary China, under Maoist and Communist oppression, and in modern China, as the country attempts to wield its mighty resources to push the country into greater economic wealth and prosperity.
Coming in at over 700 pages, this book is hefty. But, my, I flew through this. Jung’s writing is evocative and engaging. Never do you feel bogged down or bored. And what is laid bare… I mean, it breaks your heart. Just the weight of oppression for generations. Ordinary people have suffered so much in China, whoever is in charge, and it is quite something that Jung has brought the anonymous Chinese citizen centre-stage in this breathtaking book. I haven’t read it in years but talking about it again has ensured this book will be read again once more.
#10 Stories of Friendship
When this theme came up, many on social media shared books with uplifting depictions of friendship, where such connections were enduring and unerringly positive. Now, for me, I’m not one for rose-tinted views of the world. I suppose maybe I’m a glass half-empty kind-of person. But, for me, Hanya Yanagihara’s depiction of friendship in A Little Life was more realistic.
In it we follow the thirty year friendship of four men in New York through their life events, their trials and their tribulations. It isn’t an idyllic depiction. Friendships don’t always last a lifetime, and sometimes what connects us fades away. And sometimes, just sometimes, friendship means simply being there when no one else is.
A Little Life was nominated for, pretty much, every book prize going when it was released. It divided readers, though, with some finding its tone depressing and its 700+ pages way too much. But me, I found it truthful and with a huge emotional impact.
#11 Nasty Women
What’s that saying about only nasty women make history?
When I hear most people talk about Emmeline Pankhurst, I sense a reverential tone. To many she is a hero, a pioneer. And it is true, she is all that. But it’s interesting the extent to which a legend has taken hold here. Or maybe people simply don’t know enough about her to see her for what she truly was.
Mrs Pankurst was an extraordinary woman, and in many ways I am in awe of her. But, let’s get this straight, she was an utterly ruthless individual. She could be cruel, viciously so. She was a horrible mother who bullied her two younger daughters and treated them with immense disdain. Many considered her a tyrant, even those close to her who’d been loyal friends but who she cast aside as she seized sole control of the suffragette movement for herself.
Yet, all of this I admire (even though she would hate me. She would hate pretty much all of us today, truth be told). Because male civil rights leaders are allowed to be tyrants and hypocrites – good on the outside but with a questionable personal moral compass. Emmeline Pankhurst was instrumental in proving that women were no different. In fact, she showed them the way. A true pioneer.
#12 Must Read Classics
More a must-read writer than a single book. Donna Tartt’s writing blows me away. So clever, so intricate, so rewarding.
It speaks volumes of the woman and her talent that even though she ‘only’ has three books to her name, she is already considered a giant amongst (wo)men. There is a neo-romanticism to her writing that is so unusual in today’s more clipped, contemporary style. And the worlds she creates are seductive, mysterious, and keep the reader always just a little off-balance.
As you can see from my signed copy of The Little Friend, I did get to meet her – briefly – way back, back in the days she did actually do book tours. I listened to her speak at KCL on the discipline and satisfaction of writing and she was everything you’d think she would be. And yes, she looked just as you’d expect her to too. An icon and a writer I admire immensely. I think her work is unique and just on another level.
#13 Ladies of Letters
Who else, really? I’ve never read a collection of letters as frank, honest and soul-bearing as those of the great Virginia Woolf, and I don’t think it’s possible to not be particularly affected by the last letter she ever wrote, one she penned to her husband, Leonard, just before she committed suicide.
It’s certainly difficult to look at this letter, in particular, and examine it coldly as a piece of literature when it was obviously followed by a totally devastating event but, like all her letters, it reveals so much anguish. A fine collection that gives such insight into a legend.
#14 Women Who Changed Music
I will always be drawn to work by women who make waves, who are radical, on the front foot, and who rattle the cage. I’ve no doubt that reflects as much on me as it does on the musicians I admire.
I’ve been a Madonna fan since I first saw her on The Tube – I remember that so well. My tenth birthday party was even a Madonna look-a-like fancy dress (I know, you probably wouldn’t see that now eh?!). But even though at times Madonna remains problematic (after eschewing feminism her entire career, her sudden conversion is eyebrow-raising), she has undoubtedly had the metaphorical shit kicked out of her time and again for pushing hard at society’s prejudice on ‘acceptable female behaviour.’ She is bold and fearless – even her evangelism about the Kabbalah is fascinating in a world where spirituality and religion is uncool. Her artistry remains underrated, and at her height, she wrote the most majestic of pop anthems. She’ll always be the Queen to me.
#15 To Open Your Eyes
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein opened society’s eyes in every way, from its examination of the profound themes in its text, to the role and representation of women writers. And, just as a throwaway, with this book Mary also created the entire genre of science fiction. This book was a game-changer in every sense of the word.
I’ve read this book many times – I still do try and read it when I can. Even with our modern eyes and outlook, it’s an astounding read. No other novel has ever come close to matching it for its depiction of the vanity of man, the desire for men to control life – both as an affront to God and an insult to women. And so much more. Its powerful message on parental responsibilities, the cruelty of man that destroys the Creature’s nascent humanity and corrupts his morality, and, of course, its warnings on the potential and limitations of science.
#16 I’d Give To My Younger Self
Art books play as big a part in my life as novels, and I picked up this mammoth book on the Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s at the exhibition of many works from this genre at The Photographers’ Gallery last year.
I grew up in an era before the internet, before social media, so I had no awareness that this wave of art even existed, where female artists exploited the increasing availability of cameras and film to develop works that examined what it is to be a woman, including subjects such as domesticity, violence, objectification, commodification, subjugation, and the rest.
You see, the art world is an industry like any other – run by men, for the benefit of men, with a focus on what appeals to male interests. Female artists have therefore struggled not just with being permitted to develop an artistic career, but also with getting their works into galleries. This is why they were invisible to me for so long. So, what I would have given to have had this book placed into my hands in my formative years as I struggled to find those who were already challenging the issues all around me in brilliantly creative and confrontational ways.
#17 Exploring Mental Health
Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is a radical play both in terms of form and content. It is an extraordinary piece of work that is torturously superb in its depiction of a defeated, conflicted mind. Of course, this is drawn into even sharper focus when it is understood that this was the last play Sarah wrote before she committed suicide in 1999.
There are no specified characters, locations or stage directions in this play and, as a result, it can lead to some very creative productions. Instead, the focus is on the emotional spiral and destructive circle of mental illness. So much is drawn into these words, from self-harm to medication, from suicide to love, from isolation to relationships. Its chaos is what is so truthful. A ground-breaker.
#18 In the Sisterhood
Much like the friendship in #10, I far prefer more subversive takes on themes. Take sisterhood, for example. There was an awful lot of posts for Little Women on this day, as well as other celebratory and joyous examples of women banding together.
Then there was me.
Laline Paull’s The Bees was recommended to me, and clearly this person understands my taste because I loved it. It’s a chilling fantasy novel that follows Flora, a member of the lowest caste in her hive, as she battles the strict social hierarchy that governs her existence.
Whether it’s the fertility police or the all-dominant religion of Queen-worship, the female bees who comprise the hive form a very dark version of sisterhood. And as their dominance is challenged by both Flora and a pervading sickness, it’s clear that they’re not in the business of having each other’s backs.
#19 My Green Spines
The ‘Green Spines’ in the theme refers to the original Virago press, where all its books were published with a distinctive green spine. Virago Books is an international publisher of books by women, and its commitment to putting women writers centre-stage has been invaluable in changing the way publishing works with women writers.
As a result of its forty years plus, as you can imagine, there’s a wealth of great writing talent in its library to draw from. But, in this instance, I went for Maya Angelou’s masterpiece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Heralded as one of the great books, not many realise that its history also includes periods where it was censored and banned. Its frank retelling of rape, racism and sexuality has often terrified many White censors. Yet this book has overcome them all, much like Maya herself, to stand as testament to the power and resilience of a Black woman’s voice.
#20 Made Me Laugh
If there are books funnier than Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and the follow-up, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, I’ve not read them. Or heard of them, in fact.
I have both these books on my iBooks and any time all the shit gets on top of me, I open them up and read a few pages. They are the most uplifting and well-observed of books. Everything from Adrian’s anxiety over growing up, his utter obliviousness to the very obvious domestic dramas going on around him, to his poetic brilliance… It’s all so wonderful.
No, but seriously, Do You Weep, Mrs Thatcher? is an unheralded masterpiece. As Adrian would, no doubt, agree.
Nadia Anjuman… A bright, ferocious talent whose life was cruelly cut short. Nadia was a young Afghan poet killed by her husband in 2005. Her poetry takes my breath away.
She was only 25 when her husband beat her to death but such was her ability, that she was already a poet of some repute.
Her husband was convicted for her murder, only for the verdict to be overturned by the men who rule Afghanistan, and instead her death has been ruled a suicide.
#22 Feminist Dystopia
Ooh, I really thought long and hard about this! It’s not really the done thing, is it, to include your own books in these sort of lists? Somewhat uncouth. But here’s the thing, Toni Morrison once famously said, ‘If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.’
And that is why I wrote Darkness.
I wanted to explore the legitimacy of violence, the need for militancy in the feminist movement, the very real encroachment on women’s rights that exist today, and also, I wanted to challenge the common depiction of women in dystopias as victims, weak and exploited.
That women’s rights would be curtailed in a dystopia is given, but what if women fought back? And so I wrote this book about a female terrorist group who, in the event of the collapse of the West, take up a campaign of violence to prevent the re-institution of the patriarchal state.
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#23 Favourite Female Character
My Mother used to tell me I was her Jo March – opinionated, headstrong but ultimately a little bit lost. (No idea how she thought I was like that!) But though I cannot doubt that there may be some similarities there in life, in my reading I’m far more drawn to characters you’d pull away from, such as Eileen in the extraordinary book of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Eileen is uncomfortable reading and she is an uncomfortable character – a lonely young woman who works in a boys’ prison and is trapped in a dysfunctional and co-dependent relationship with her alcoholic father. Yet this dark story of the impact on her life of a new woman who comes to town is absorbing. And a little scary.
#24 Books to Make You March
Most people who follow me on Twitter or on my You-Tube book channel know how I feel about this book. I had the privilege of hearing a Naomi Klein lecture in London last year, as part of her promotion for this book, and I haven’t been the same since. How often can you say that?
Prior to This Changes Everything, I had been rather defeated by climate change. Not that I didn’t believe it (!), but because of its inevitability. I had also, naively, assumed that it would be a great leveller, that rich and poor would become equal in the face of devastating natural events. I suppose, perversely, I thought that was a good thing.
This book shook me from such slumber and ignorance. In it, Naomi persuasively argues that far from a leveller, the rich are manipulating the system so that the poor are sacrificed for climate change to ensure that who and what survives is the rich and their wealth. As sobering as hell.
#25 Women in War
Tricky one, this one, as I appreciate this book is a little problematic. Gone With the Wind‘s depiction of the Deep South and Black enslaved people is a problem, and rightly so. However, Scarlett is a character etched very deeply into my psyche, and hugely influential in my formative years, so I want to acknowledge that.
She was the first female character I came across in popular culture who not only drove the plot, but was also a complicated character, often unlikeable, but who, nevertheless, faced every defeat down. Scarlett was never broken, and that is a powerful message.
No doubt enhanced by the mammoth movie adaptation, Scarlett O’Hara’s survival of the American Civil War and its devastating aftermath is iconic. There’s an iron will in Scarlett that I have always been in awe of.
#26 For a Excellent Woman
When I looked over the list of themes when it first came out, I obviously had to think harder for some more than others. This one was one of the easiest. I only read this extraordinary novel from Penelope Lively – a Booker Prize Winner back in 1987 – last year. And I have been eulogising about it ever since.
Moon Tiger is only a short book and the story seems so small – an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital bed, and as she does, she thinks back on her life – but the writing is blistering. It’s powerful, emotional, and hit me pretty hard.
The woman is Claudia Hampton, a fiercely independent woman, a former journalist who decides, in these last moments of her life, to write a history of the world, but instead it reveals itself as a story of her life – one of passionate affairs, incest and the desire to be recognized as an independent free-thinking woman of the time. Yet Penelope’s message is that this is exactly what a history of the world should be – memories, happy and sad, and the lives that fade away unremembered. Breathtaking.
#27 In the City
What can I say? I look for the darkness in every theme! And I don’t think any writer has captured a city in the way that Daphne Du Maurier did in Don’t Look Now. To most, Venice is one of the most romantic cities in the world, but here, it is dark, foreboding and scary.
Don’t Look Now is only a short story, and often sold in collections with some of Du Maurier’s other shorter works, and it is more widely known these days for the movie adaptation, which is a shame, as it means many don’t invest in the superb original writing.
A couple nursing a desperate trauma head to Venice for a romantic getaway to heal both their hearts and their relationship. And Du Maurier subverts this brilliantly in this tale of suspense and horror where a city of dreams becomes a city of ghosts and nightmares. Writing at its very best.
#28 From Page to Screen
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson is now, thankfully, on the school curriculum but sadly, this wasn’t the case when I was at school so, though I revelled in reading plays such as Our Day Out and A Taste of Honey, I was very late to the party for this book.
Published in 1985, this coming-of-age (semi-autobiographical) story about a lesbian girl who grows up in an English Pentecostal community was adapted in 1990 into a television drama. Sadly, I missed that too so it wasn’t until only a few years ago that I finally got around to getting familiar with this modern classic.
Not only is this a touching story of a young girl discovering the power of love and the cost of parental fallibility, but its honest and, frankly, normalising depiction of fledgling same-sex relationships remains desperately needed in our world today, which is still hesitant (at best) to talk about non-heterosexuality with children.
#29 Back to Nature
I discovered Ruby by Cynthia Bond when this book was shortlisted for last year’s Bailey’s Prize. It’s a pretty distressing book – an unflinching study of violence and injustice in the Deep South. Set in the 1960s, it focuses on a black community who live in poverty on the edge of woodland and lakes in Texas.
The book is a powerful and compelling book on male violence and female courage in all its forms, but the reason I chose it for the ‘Back to Nature’ theme is because Cynthia’s depiction of the suffocating heat of the bayous and the darkness of the dense woodlands is intoxicating.
I do admit a weakness for the landscape and terrain of the Deep South, and when Cynthia blends this heat and mystery with spirits and magic, well, the results were, for me, spellbinding.
#30 Books to Give You Hope
If there’s a more affecting book on hope than Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, I’ve not read it. This is book that shakes you to your very core and yet, in Celie – the book’s central character – we witness a woman who endures the most terrible of experiences throughout her life, yet never gives up hope or faith in her inner strength, or in those she loves.
Famously turned into an excellent film, which I expect many of you will have seen, I really do recommend reading this book too, for there is so much more complexity and beauty in Alice’s writing than is possible to capture in a movie, and it deserves to be discovered and appreciated by as many as possible.
#31 Redefining He and She
It was no surprise that Ursula Le Guin’s seminal sci-fi/fantasy novel on gender was chosen by many of those participating in #BooksforChange I suspect that not only reflects the stature of this book, but also the fact that exploration of gender identity is still largely new territory for literature.
Now, here’s the tricky bit – would I actually recommend The Left Hand of Darkness? Well, my vlog is evidence that my truthful answer is, No. It’s a book that demands to be read because of its reputation – a novel way ahead of its time – but it is not the most engaging, accessible story you will ever read.