Inspiring female characters for International Women’s Day

Eleanor Oliphant, from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor is an intensely likeable character, but one who is also incredibly lonely. She leaves work on Friday and doesn’t speak to anyone until she returns to work on Monday morning. Her social skills are, at best, subpar, but her honesty and her vulnerability invite empathy. Her struggle to make connections with others and her growth as a human being are wonderful to read about.

Beatrice Lacey, from Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Looking at reviews of this book, it’s clear to see that Beatrice is a divisive character. Some find her headstrong, while others see her as just plain evil. Ruthless, cruel and destructive she may be, she nevertheless proves that female characters in fiction don’t always have to play nice. Her methods might be somewhat questionable, but her determination to get what she wants is admirable.

Vasya, from The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Vasya is a young woman living in medieval Russia who rallies against the constraints placed on her because of her gender. She refuses to accept demands that she either marry or go into a convent. Why would she confine herself inside four walls when she can go out and explore the world?

Lucrezia Borgia, from Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

Lucrezia Borgia is often remembered as ruthless and cruel, a woman who slipped poison to those who stood in her way. Dunant paints a different picture; of a woman forced to marry several different men against her will, a woman using the few weapons available to her in 16th century Italy to prove that she is more than just a pawn in her father’s game.

Kathryn Parr, from The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Another real woman rescued from history is Kathryn Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. While she is constantly reminded of her husband’s favourite wife, whom she can never hope to live up to, she is also haunted by memories of her predecessor, Katherine Howard, beheaded for her infidelity to the king. Kathryn must find a way to navigate dangerous political waters using only her intelligence and cunning.

Angelica Neal, from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Bower

Like others on this list, Angelica is a character who invites debate. Viewed by some as infantile and selfish, others recognise her determination and strength. However, you can’t fail to admire the way she fights against society’s expectations and takes command of her own career (controversial though her choice of job may be).

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

In 19th century Iceland, Agnes is condemned to death for the murder of her lover. Viewed by her community as a kind of Lady Macbeth, no one is interested in hearing her side of the story; they only want to see her executed. Beneath her icy exterior, however, Agnes is intelligent, passionate and sympathetic.

Lyra Belacqua, from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Although Lyra is only a child when The Northern Lights begins, there is plenty to learn from her bravery and courage in the face of adversity. She refuses to meekly accept what adults declare to be true, choosing instead to question the world around her and try to do what she can to make it better.

Lila Bard, from A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The heroine of this fantasy series has been criticised as being a bit of a Mary Sue (a character who is perfect in every way), but I had to include her on this list for her formidable skill with weapons. A cutpurse and gifted user of magic, her approach is to kick ass first and ask questions later.

Hermione Granger, from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Of course this list would not be complete without a mention of my favourite bookworm. Hermione proved to a generation of girls that it’s cool to be smart – and that, when in doubt, the best thing to do is go to the library.


Philippa Gregory’s new novel shows women navigating dangerous political waters

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

‘I love my father because I know that he will never die. Neither will I. We are chosen by God and we walk in His ways, and we never swerve from them. We don’t have to earn our place in heaven by bribing God with acts or Masses. We don’t have to eat bread and pretend it is flesh, drink wine and call it blood. We know that is folly for the ignorant and a trap for papist fools. This knowledge is our pride and glory.’

This is the true story of the three Grey sisters: Jane, Queen of England for nine days; Katherine, whose lineage makes her a threat to the rightful succession; and Mary, a dwarf disregarded by the court but all too aware of her position as a possible heir to the throne.

I’m a huge fan of Philippa Gregory, particularly her Tudor novels, and she has claimed that this one will be her final story in a popular series spanning 11 books.

Gregory has once again proven why she is the queen of historical fiction. Her characters are women navigating dangerous political waters, aware that even taking the precaution of closing all the windows and doors isn’t enough to ensure they won’t be overheard by spies. Even an innocent remark can lead to a charge of treason, and the monarch is able to hold men and women in the Tower at their leisure without charging them of any crime.

The Grey sisters are each very different. We have pious Jane, an innocent but devout girl at the heart of a treasonous plot to sit her on the throne of England; wilful and light-hearted Katherine, who marries for love against the Queen’s wishes; and Mary, little in stature but possessing more dignity than anyone else at court. Around these three characters Gregory crafts an intriguing story of family and treachery, jealousy and passion.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is its exploration of the ‘last Tudor’ referenced in the title: Queen Elizabeth I. When most people think of Elizabeth they imagine her as queen in a time of glory and momentous change, when Shakespeare was writing, the New World was just discovered, and the monarch presided over a court full of the brightest minds of their generation. Gregory’s novel shows an altogether different side of Elizabeth, painting her, through the eyes of the Grey sisters, as vain, vindictive and needlessly cruel.

The main problem in this book is that the narrators spend such an awful lot of their time locked behind bars, unable to even make contact with anyone outside. As such we hear of the important political events taking place in England from characters who aren’t actually witnessing them first hand.

The other aspect of this book I had trouble with is the fact that there is next to no character development. We are introduced to each of the Grey sisters at the start of the novel, and they remain the same until the very end. I prefer my characters to change over the course of a story, watching them develop and grow, and that is something the reader definitely doesn’t get from this book.

Despite its flaws, Gregory has once again succeeded in what she does best: taking real women from history and giving them a voice. She has stuck to her traditional formula and as such her fans will find much to love here. I’ll be keen to see what she comes up with once she frees herself from facts and comes up with her own original characters.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

New book releases for August 2017

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year I read Pulley’s debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and it was one of my favourite books of 2016. I’ve already read The Bedlam Stacks, and can confirm that it is just as magical and surprising as her debut. (Full review coming soon)

Release date: 1st August

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

The true story of the three Grey sisters: Jane, Queen of England for nine days; Katherine, whose lineage makes her a threat to the rightful succession; and Mary, a dwarf disregarded by the court but all too aware of her position as a possible heir to the throne.

There is no writer who can match Gregory for historical fiction and her books set in Tudor England are often her best. She tells stories with intelligence and verve, focusing her books on real women navigating the dangerous waters of court politics.

Release date: 8th August

How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb

Don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about feelings. But Robert Webb has started to wonder if any of those rules are actually any use? To anyone? Looking back over his life, Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them.

The only autobiography I’ve ever read is Roald Dahl’s, so Webb’s book will be a departure from my usual reading material. However, I do love his sense of humour and it’s been a while since I read a book that has the potential to make me laugh out loud.

Release date: 29th August

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

Since the death of Ragnvald’s father in battle, he has worked hard to protect his sister, Svanhild, and planned to inherit his family’s land when he comes of age. But when the captain of his ship tries to kill him, he must confront his stepfather’s betrayal and find a way to protect his birthright.

This saga of Viking-era Norway sounds exciting and different, and has already been described as ‘vivid and gripping’. Steeped in legend and myth, it promises to be a swashbuckling historical epic.

Release date: 1st August

Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne

Samantha and Naomi meet during a white-hot summer on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra. They find a young Arab man, Faoud, washed up on shore, a casualty of the crisis raging across the Aegean. But when their plan to help the stranger goes wrong, all must face the consequences.

This sounds like the perfect holiday read. It has been compared to The Great Gatsby by the New York Times Book Review; a bold claim, and only time will tell if it’s justified.

Release date: 10th August

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker SV

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives

Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week ever, including the fact a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. The appearance of a strange map sends Stella on an all-consuming research mission where she discovers the secret Paul’s been keeping.

This book has received a wealth of praise already, having been called ‘magical’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘mesmerising’, and Ives’ credentials as a poet promise beautiful writing.

Release date: 3rd August

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

When a young anthropologist uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a 300-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world. With her career and her life at stake, June will embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breath-taking secrets of the past.

I do enjoy an alternative history novel, but it’s hard finding ones that are written well. Promising artificial intelligence, steampunk and a thrilling adventure, let’s hope this one lives up to expectations.

Release date: 1st August

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funereal. A private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own. A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control. What do they have in common?

This novel marks the start of a new detective series set in London by global bestseller Anthony Horowitz, promising buried secrets and a bloody trail of clues.

Release date: 24th August

The Scandal by Fredrik Backman

The town of Beartown, Sweden, is on the verge of a revival. Change is in the air and a new future just around the corner. Until the day it is all put in jeopardy by a single brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done.

Backman is already a bestselling author and has had his books published in more than 35 countries. His newest offering promises to be a tense, empathetic story of friendship and loyalty.

Release date: 10th August

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Josie Buhrman has spent the last 10 years trying to escape the tragic events of her past. Now, she has a new life in New York with her boyfriend, Caleb. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past.

It’s been a while since I read a really gripping psychological thriller, so I’m hoping this debut novel will offer just that.

Release date: 10th August

Celebrate International Women’s Day with these top female authors

Today, 8th March 2017, is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women. What better time to highlight our favourite female authors?

  1. J.K. Rowling

On this day how can we not celebrate the woman who gave us Hermione Granger and Minerva McGonagall? Rowling’s books feature female characters who are brave, resourceful, intelligent, witty, and everything in between, and Rowling herself is an inspiration to women everywhere.

Recommended book: Harry Potter

  1. V.E. Schwab

Victoria Schwab is a force of nature; a bestselling fantasy author with a huge fanbase, her best-known work is the Shades of Magic trilogy. Her writing is fierce and spiky, her characters witty and brave, and she writes some of the best descriptions of magic I’ve ever read.

Recommended book: A Darker Shade of Magic

  1. Philippa Gregory

The queen of historical fiction, Gregory’s speciality is the Tudors but she has also written about other historical periods, including the Plantagenets and post-World War I. Her female characters are often ruthless and flawed but likeable all the same.

Recommended book: Wideacre

  1. Malorie Blackman

Blackman is most well known for her Noughts and Crosses series, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story set in a dystopian future in which dark-skinned Crosses rule over white-skinned noughts with an iron fist. Her work covers pertinent issues such as racism, terrorism and justice.

Recommended book: Noughts and Crosses

  1. Gillian Flynn

If there’s one thing Flynn excels at, it’s writing flawed female characters who inspire both empathy and disgust. Her most well-known character has to be Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, an intelligent woman with a merciless cruel streak.

Recommended book: Sharp Objects

  1. Donna Tartt

Two of my favourite books ever written are by Donna Tartt. In 2014 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with the fantastic (and somewhat divisive) The Goldfinch. Though she often focuses on male protagonists, her stories are peopled with lots of different types of characters and often focuses on morality and identity.

Recommended book: The Secret History

  1. Tabitha Suzuma

Suzuma typically writes YA novels but her beautiful and insightful writing will definitely appeal to adult readers. Her books often centre on themes of family and mental illness.

Recommended book: A Note of Madness

  1. Karen Maitland

Maitland is a brilliant writer who has carved out a niche of herself, writing dark historical fiction with elements of the supernatural. Her stories are set in medieval times and she manages to bring the filth and superstition of this era to life on the page.

Recommended book: Company of Liars

  1. Robin Hobb

Hobb is another fantasy author with a huge following, having written 20 books during her illustrious career. Her female characters are strong and brave without becoming clichés; some are assassins, some are mothers, all are inspiring.

Recommended book: Assassin’s Apprentice

  1. Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is an award-winning author of six books and is known for writing historical novels featuring lesbian protagonists. Her characters are often selfish and a little bit lost, inspiring both disdain and sympathy.

Recommended book: Tipping the Velvet