Launched by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the #THISBOOK campaign was a means to help promote books written by women who had changed people’s lives and perspectives. From classics to contemporary, fantasy to literary fiction, any and all suggestions were welcomed. The short list for the Baileys Fiction Prize has been available for a while now and the winner will be announced tomorrow on the 4th of June. In the run up to the awarding of the prize, the #THISBOOK campaign was the perfect way to get people involved and talking about the worth and talent of female authors and all they have to offer readers. The hash tag has been extremely successful on Twitter and both men and women have posted their top book choices or pictures of their bookshelves if they cannot decide one one particular favorite.
Part of the campaign included various celebrities or well-known authors choosing their own personal favorites and these were then compiled into a list in order to help publicize the Baileys Prize and the continued need for its existence. Some of the high profile individuals asked for their top choice of women’s fiction include the journalist Caitlin Moran, author Kate Mosse, comedienne Jennifer Saunders and singer Sharleen Spiteri. However, the twitter campaign has thrown up some interesting additions of its own and now seems like the perfect time to have a look at some of the best suggestions from both lists. So here is a compilation of the top ten books from both the author’s preferences and the tweeted additions:
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte takes first place on this list. As well as appearing in multiple twitter recommendations it was also claimed by Kate Mosse as her favorite on the official list. The stormy romance is set in the Yorkshire moors and charts the destructive relationships of the central characters as they slowly pull each other apart through jealousy and vengefulness. Despite having an entire cast of characters who are often deplorable at best and down right detestable at worst, the success of the novel lies in making these people as fascinating as they are repellant. It is a dark testament to the power of love and passion and unlike many novels (from both then and contemporary times) promote the feelings of the heart over logic, reason and social expectation. The only published novel by Emily Bronte, under the pseudonym Ellis Bell in 1847, the popularity of this work has not been tempered by time and is consistently reinvented or reworked in film, television, radio, and even a musical, ballet and opera.
Coming in a close second is, To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, another author who only wrote one book which went on to be unbelievably successful. It is widely regarded as one of the best novels ever written and was chosen by two celebrities, lead singer of Texas, Sharlene Spiteri and human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabati, as the book which most appealed to them. Their diverse reasons for loving the story illustrate the great range and depth which Lee managed to create in just one book. Set in the south of America in a fictional town, it follows a lawyer and his children as they negotiate the issues of race, politics, rape and social prejudice and crucially try to do the right thing. There are few novels as inspiring as this one when it comes to championing goodness and morality, even in the face of all adversity.
The dark and controversial story, We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver is an exploration of the debate surrounding nature vs nurture when it comes to children and as another popular twitter choice is third on this list. It challenged perceptions of motherhood and raised many questions but it remains an enthralling narrative achievement and deserves its reputation as one of the best pieces of contemporary literary fiction written by a woman. A sinister and dark tale following first time mother, Eva, her easy-going and gullible husband, and their son, Kevin, as they slowly unravel around each other. The horrifying twist at the end is not as surprising as it should be, but the final conclusion is the point which will really tie your mind in knots.
I Capture The Castle, by Dodi Smith, is one of the best coming of age novels about a young girl which anyone can read. The eccentric cast of characters coupled with the slightly Jane Austen plot tendencies make for an amusing and heart-warming story of a young girl coming to terms with the world and the people around her. Chosen by Game of Thrones actress, Gwen Christie, on the official list, she said she chose it because the main character, aspiring writer Cassandra Mortmain, resonated with her younger self. In comparison to some of the darker choices on this list, I Capture The Castle is less intense, but just as insightful and full of wit, grace and lyricism.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, set against the vibrant background of the Belgian Congo and narrated by five women in the same family, is complex, beautiful and impossible to put down. The Prices are a missionary family, led by the single minded Baptist minister Nathan Price whose inability to understand and respect the African culture of the villagers he seeks to convert leads to turmoil for the entire family. Narrated by his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, it is through their very different and ever-changing eyes the reader views everything within the story. Each voice is individual, fully developed and each of their personal journeys within the framework of the novel is equally fascinating, heart-breaking and inspiring. Kingsolver weaves a magical web of sticky familiar relations, political upheaval and social tensions with some unexpected incidents thrown in for good measure. The Poisonwood Bible draws readers in to the intensely foreign landscape of central Africa and then allows them to get lost in the many and varied paths it leads the characters down.
Anne Frank’s Diary is a book everyone should read. One of the most famous diaries ever published and a horrifying account of the evils which humanity is capable of, the historical insight it provides is invaluable in itself, but more importantly it brings history alive for the reader. Through the eyes of a young Jewish girl, the crimes of the Nazi’s and the terror they wreaked on their country is laid bare. A lesson, a heart-breaking story and a coming of age record cut short, the story of Anne Frank is known all over the world, but most have not actually read the words she wrote in her desperation, fear and boredom. It might not make you laugh but it will certainly make you hold your breath in the hope that the ending will somehow be different from the inevitability recorded in the textbooks.
The legendary first line from Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, is as unforgettable as the book itself. Another popular choice from many readers, this classic has never been out of print, despite not being a massive best seller. With the elusive title character always lurking in the background of the narrative, the secrets and misconceptions of the history of the Manderley estate and its previous inhabitants steadily revealed throughout make for an unpredictable read. When a young woman makes a rather hasty decision to marry an older, widowed man named Maximillian De Winter, she has no idea how the unspoken presence of his first wife, Rebecca, will shape their marriage. With the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, constantly attempting to undermine her position within the house and Mr. De Winter distant, cold and unwilling to elaborate on his history, the young woman (named only as Mrs. De Winter) tries desperately to live up to the standard set by Rebecca when she was alive. Her failure to do so results in tensions finally coming to a head and secrets finally being revealed. Gothic, romantic and a ghostly exploration of jealousy, never has a title character been so absent while maintaining center stage within the narrative.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen is a classic with enduring appeal and spirited female characters, having a standard place on school curriculum’s and any person’s “must read” list. The witty and often acerbic tone of all of Austen’s narrators is masterfully executed in her most famous novel. The strong-headed character of Lizzie has been a favorite with classic literature fans for a long time. Her strength of personality and wit in the face of such strict social protocol as well as her unwillingness to settle for anything or anyone below her personal standards makes her the perfect Austen heroine. The dashing Mr. Darcy with his good intentions, extensive fortune, handsome visage and high class standing might be a little too perfect for some, but for any hopeless romantics he is the icing on the cake of a novel obsessed with love and relationships.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, is an eclectic choice, but worthy of inclusion none the less. Following the exploits of a rather questionable Scottish teacher it covers fascism, favoritism, eccentricity and sexuality all at the same time. Adapted into a film starring Maggie Smith as the enigmatic teacher in 1969 which proved extremely popular and brought Smith the Academy Award for Best Actress, it has also been performed on the Broadway stage to critical acclaim. The unconventional teaching methods of Miss Jean Brodie and her hand-picked “Brodie set” are the focus of the novel as they are contrasted with the conservative values and practices of the school and the headmistress. Ultimately, Miss Jean Brodie’s prime reaches its apex and she suffers with the unforeseen consequences of some of the beliefs which she imparted to her youthful charges. There are very few characters quite like her in life or literature and the book is worth reading just to gain an introduction with the enigmatic title character.
The last on the list, and the only children’s book to be included, is of course the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling. It was too difficult to pick one of the seven and so the whole set is going in as one; several people tweeted one of the Harry Potter adventures but there didn’t seem to be a clear preference for one particular book. Rarely has a novel or series of any genre had such an incredible impact on people and their reading habits as Rowling’s inventions. The magical world of Hogwarts and all that it entails has left more than one child (and quite a few adults as well) wishing desperately for their acceptance letter to Dumbledore’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Commentary By: Rhona Scullion