What To Read This Spring

14th March 2014

Spring – the season of renewal – is finally in the air. What better time to give your bookshelves a good look and find a few new favourites to add. Jennifer Lipman makes some suggestions.

What to read if you were a teenage bookworm…

No matter how much you enjoy your reading as an adult, the characters you meet invariably pale in comparison to the quirky, colourful cast of your childhood library. How to be a Heroine is a celebration of former leading ladies, with author Samantha Ellis discussing her own life in between consideration of what she learned from Katy Carr, Scarlett O’Hara, Cathy Earnshaw and the March sisters. Ellis, the sort of reader who grew up just devouring books, revisits the girls and women of the novels of her youth, evaluating their hopes and dreams and explaining how they helped her through an occasionally stifling childhood in the close-knit Iraqi Jewish community.

It’s a no-holds-barred approach, as she questions whether characters like Noel Streatfield’s Fossil sisters, or Jane Austen’s heroines, should be viewed as feminist role models – and often finds them wanting. But it’s an utter joy to read: a whirlwind walk down memory lane that takes you from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre through to Valley of the Dolls and Lace, stopping off at iconic locations like Tara, Pemberley and Green Gables. If you were a bookworm in your younger days, then this is for you; it's a pleasure to meet these old favourites again after so many years apart.

How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis,
Chatto & Windus, £16.99, out now

What to read if you want to get to know a family more dysfunctional than your own…

There’s little suspense in The Violet Hour, in that the novel opens with a husband confronting a wife about an affair; you know from the get-go that this isn’t really about reaching the happily-ever-after stage. But what follows – framed around a family get-together that is suddenly transformed from celebration to tragedy – is a highly compelling read, as author Katherine Hill looks back at what led Cassandra Green to destroy an outwardly perfect marriage. She explores how Cassandra’s decisions affect her daughter Elizabeth, who, like her mother, often veers towards self-destructive behaviour, and examines what happens once the bitterness between former husband and wife has dissolved.

It’s a meandering, sometimes strangely structured novel, flitting between past and present day, but it’s full of entertaining colour about middle class life, and how the quirks of one’s own family can seem normal but, at the same time, totally inexplicable. One to dissolve into, while feeling comforted that your own life is rather less complicated than Cassandra’s.

The Violet Hour, Katherine Hill
Viking Trade, £12.99, out now

What to read if you fancy a bit of light philosophy…

Do you ever feel that there is too much news? What with the range of print newspapers and magazines, not to mention rolling coverage on TV and in print, and constant bitesize updates on Twitter or Facebook, keeping up with current events can be something of a burden. Helpfully, along comes pop philosopher Alain de Botton, with The News: A User’s Manual, which asks why we are educated about how to interpret high art, but not ‘the words and images proffered to us every hour by the news’, and questions how we can be expected to understand our world when our exposure to much of it is via short articles that take events out of context.

His conclusions are debatable – is it exclusively the media’s fault, for example, that people prefer to read about celebrities than war zones, or that we are interested in extraordinary cases rather than the mundane? – but I’d agree with him that we put disproportionate trust in certain news ‘brands’, and I enjoyed his attempt to trace back the ‘desire to admire’ celebrities to both ancient Greece and Catholicism. This is an interesting read, both thought-provoking and relevant in an age when the news is, quite simply, all around us all the time.

The News: A User’s Manual,
Alain de Botton, Hamish Hamilton, £18.99, out now

What to read if chocolate is your weakness (and you haven’t given it up for Lent)…

As you flick through the pages of Molly Bakes’ latest, don’t be alarmed if you start salivating. The recipes are tremendous and, as the author is a self-taught chocolatier, not entirely beyond the capability of the more modest chef. Let’s be honest, though: this is one to buy for the photographs, which are essentially pornography for chocolate lovers. There are pages and pages devoted to mouthwatering images of sparkling shards of what was once a cocoa bean… palette knives splattered with luscious molten chocolate… painfully appealing truffles with their filling oozing out.

Still, if you can push past the urge to eat everything in your junk food cupboard, there are some fairly inspirational ideas. The chocolate sticky toffee pudding went down well (although perhaps don’t dwell too much on the ingredients: it is meant to be a treat, after all) and ideas like raspberry ripple slabs, toffee popcorn peanut chocolate clusters or crownies (where cookie meets brownie, and excellence transpires) are really simple ways to impress discerning guests. Few of us will ever bother to make Molly’s homemade cream eggs, mind you, but that doesn’t stop them being marvellous to look at. An attractive – if not totally necessary – addition to your recipe book collection.

Chocolate: Easy Recipes from Truffles to Bakes, Molly Bakes, Square Peg, £20, out now

What to read if you want to be able to discuss the most-talked about anniversary of the year…

As of this summer, prepare for four years of headlines about what happened on this date a century ago, as Europe descended into the war that didn’t end by Christmas, and didn’t end all wars either. The anniversary of the First World War means that bookshops will be overflowing with offerings on the subject; for a compelling but rather different take, look no further than Mark Bostridge’s The Fateful Year, which intersperses the facts about the lead-up the war with more personal and anecdotal stories from a Britain that was soon to be totally transformed.

He writes not of the battlefields, but of the individuals who could not know what lay ahead: the suffragettes fighting for the vote, the children striking in support of their teachers, the petty dramas that distracted Britons in the first part of 1914.

Then he moves on, to the deep uncertainty of the initial months of the war, when patriotism was everything and the threat of German invasion was very real, as peace disintegrated and was replaced by fear, distrust and heartbreak. This is not a military history; it’s a reminder of the country that the soldiers were fighting for..

The Fateful Year: England 1914 ,
Mark Bostridge, Viking, £25, out now

What to read if you really just want to relax with a trashy novel…

Sometimes you want great literature – and at other times you just want a good old-fashioned story that races along, keeps you guessing, and takes your mind off real life. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, the latest from American novelist Fannie Flagg, is certainly not the former – her characters are so thinly drawn as to be almost non-existent, and the writing is not what you’d call challenging – but it is good fun. Set between the wartime Midwest and noughties Alabama, it's all Southern manners, indomitable broads, smelling salts and rip-roaring adventure, as the splendidly-named Mrs Earle Poole Jr delves into the past to learn about the All Girl Filling Station and what happened when those involved tried to serve their country. Alongside the generous dose of over-the-top drama, there’s an intriguing true story of the WASPs, the feisty female pilots in the Second World War who still lack the recognition they deserve. Flagg's most famous novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, was turned into a hit film, and this reads like it’s aiming for the big screen as well. Dive in after a long week, and enjoy it for what it is.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion,
Fannie Flagg, Chatto & Windus, £12.99, out now

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