Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff Review


Rating: ★★★★★

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but sometimes there are books that I just have to read. This was one of them. I love shopping for books in the used books stores on Charing Cross Road, and when I discovered there was a book on the same subject, I was instantly in love. This book was even more enjoyable than I expected, I am happy to report, and a brilliant sweet, short read.

Helene Hanff was a struggling writer in New York who loved to buy second hand books. Wanting to get the best value for money, she wrote all the way to London’s Marks & Co bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road to have her books delivered to place her orders. Over the course of 20 years, she struck up a friendship with many of the shop’s staff, but mainly with Frank Doel, a bookseller who took personal responsibility for her orders, and even with his family. Although she never had the opportunity to meet Frank in person, or even to see the bookshop – Frank having died, and the shop having closed by the time she managed to visit London – this makes the letters between them even more moving to read, and especially in this day and age, it was really touching to see how such long lasting relationships could grow across oceans, through the medium of letters. My own copy was followed by the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, Helene’s diaries from when she finally managed to visit London. Although I didn’t enjoy this section as much, her wit and unique voice is equally strong here.

The thing that really makes this book so great is Helene’s brilliant writing. Her character really came through in her writing, and her letters are so witty and teasing that you will find yourself chuckling away at them. You could really get a feel for all of the characters through the letters, from Helene’s cheery humour to Frank’s more stiff-upper-lip reserve, the gossiping receptionist and his caring wife. It was also lovely to see the passage of time through their letters, and see how the relationships evolved into genuinely caring friendships. Frank remembers requests that Helene made years before, Helene asks after his family and even talks to his wife in separate letters, and although they plan for years to meet each other in London, the evolution of this slow-burn friendship is cut tragically short by circumstance, the event that prompted Helene to publish her letters.

Being such a short book with such lively writing, this was a really enjoyable read. It is barely over 100 pages but in that short period you feel like you have gotten to know Helene and the staff at Marks & Co. I definitely recommend it for a lively, sweet book about book, friendships, and friendships about books!


Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Review – ‘Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s’ – Jennifer Worth

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★★★★

If you have read my reviews of the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife, you will know how much I love the stories of London’s midwives that Jennifer Worth immortalised in her memoirs. I decided that it would not be a bad idea to read the first book from the series written by Jennifer Worth which inspired the television series, and in fact until recently was the foundation for most episodes.

I was truly impressed by the book, and not only because I thought it was fascinating, which I knew, judging by my love of the show, but because I was still just as amazed by the stories told inside of it as I am by the stories in the television show. I did not feel like I knew it all already, or that the book was not worth reading, even though many of the stories feature in the show itself. In fact, Worth’s writing really made the stories come to life within the pages, and I felt as if I was learning about the characters with brand new eyes. This book is a masterpiece in itself, completely separate from the series and I advise anybody who enjoys the show as I do, or even to you who have not seen it, to read this book if you want to experience a real emotional journey.

91Q9vtxKYbLThe story, if you don’t know, centres around Jenny Lee, a midwife who is sent to work at Nonnatus House, a convent which houses nuns which for decades have served the people of the East End of London as nurses and midwives. There, she lives and works alongside nuns such as the gentle Sister Julienne, the louder Sister Evangelina, the kind Sister Bernadette and the eccentric Sister Monica Joan, as well as other midwives like herself, Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy. In her memoirs, Jenny tells us about her life at the convent and outside of it, nursing and midwifery as a profession as well as the stories of individual patients which she actually served while working as a midwife in the 1950s. The names have been changed, but Jennifer Worth’s writing really brings the stories within the pages to life and leaves you with no doubt that the people were real and that she didn’t make anything up. Different topics include child neglect, mix-raced babies, expectant mothers with pre-eclampsia, premature babies, prostitutes of Cable Street, forced adoptions and the victims of poorhouses. Not only is Call the Midwife fascinating as a story, or set of stories, but it is also a great insight into life in the East End at the time, as Worth looked at various different social issues in her book.

article-2219708-158B7705000005DC-418_306x423With regards to the characters featuring in the book, I was surprised to find that the characters as described by Worth in the book are just as vivid as those in the television series. I am not much of a lover of autobiographies, and I had always expected, I am rather ashamed to admit, that the writers of the television series would have expanded on the characters’ personalities. In fact, I stand corrected. I can see now that the writers actually had a foolproof guide for when it came to creating the characters for the series. Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy were all life-like figures in the book, even if they do not feature as centrally as they do in the series, with none of their own stories, when they were mentioned, Worth described them fully and in detail. The same goes for the patients and other individuals that Worth described. I felt, while reading the book, as if I could envisage them all, even though I had not seen the first episodes of the series, and so had not seen their episodes.

Overall, I was surprised by Call the Midwife, as I did not expect it to be as detailed and comprehensive a piece of work as it is. It is so vivid and alive in its descriptions that I now fully understand how the series came to be as fantastic as I think it is – it had a flawless blueprint. Worth’s writing was perfect, and not only did I enjoy reading the stories which I had seen on television, but also felt like I learnt a lot about life in the East End at the time and its social issues, and about the history of nursing. Furthermore, keeping in with the trend of my crying in every episode of Call the Midwife, I am pleased to report that these memoirs also brought a tear (or two) to my eyes

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northup Review


12 Years A Slave (the memoir on which the movie you might have heard of is based) is a memoir written in 1853. I haven’t watched the film, but I was intrigued by the book when I stumbled upon it because I haven’t read many accounts or even novels about slavery. The book tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeman in New York who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he remains for 12 years until freed in 1853.

12-years-a-slave-book-coverAlthough the events that Northup experienced are far from boring to read, and the book is an incredibly detailed insight into the life of a slave in the 19th century, I found the book incredibly slow at time. I wish that Northup had told us more of the people he was with during his twelve years, perhaps instead of dedicating entire pages to tell us about farming methods. I think that the various people under whom Northup worked, such as William Ford, Tibeats and Epps, were described well and I understood what sort of people they work, but for having spent ten years in the company of slaves like Patsey, I wish he had written about them more as actual people than just like shadows in the background of Northup’s story, which is what they felt like to me when reading.

I also wish that there was more of Solomon Northup’s actual thoughts in the book, but it felt as if I was reading a factual step-by-step account of his life instead of hearing it from him. It felt odd that this was a first-hand account and yet throughout most of the book, Northup makes no mention of the family he left behind, if he missed them or not, and even when he finished telling the story, he refused to give an opinion on the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery; I found it unsettling that after having been through everything he told, he could not give an opinion on it. There were very few times when an event was described not purely as a factual account and we got a sense of Northup’s actual feelings towards it, such as telling of Patsey’s treatment, and those were definitely the most striking parts of the book.

I found this book truly difficult to read as it was incredibly slow and felt too detached from the incidents themselves, however it was a fantastic insight into the life of slaves.

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Review – ‘Testament of Youth’ – Vera Brittain

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Vera Brittain while serving as a V.A.D. nurse

Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoirs, Testament of Youth, focus mainly on the years 1914-1925. The book effectively covers three parts of Brittain’s life as a young woman; the years just before the War, the years during, and the years just after, especially her time as a V.A.D. nurse during the war, as a student at Oxford University, and the beginnings of her career as a writer and journalist.

EACIMRIn 1914 Vera, frustrated with life in her village and goes to Oxford with dreams of being a writer. However, this coincides with the start of the War, and her brother and friends, including her future fiancé all enlist. At Oxford, she also grows frustrated. She postpones her studies and enlists as a volunteer nurse, a role that sees her serving in England, Malta and France. She tells of her struggles in nursing and her personal battles with friendship and love against the backdrop of a War that causes death and destruction all around. However, despite her personal tragedies, we see Vera carve out a career for herself in politics, journalism and writing after the War. The book ends almost ten years to the day that she first enlisted as a nurse with her vowing to look forward to the future and ensure that the victims of the War did not die in vain.

Many of the letters in the book are between Vera and her brother Edward, seen here in 1915
Many of the letters in the book are between Vera and her brother Edward, seen here in 1915

Much of the book is told in the form of extracts from Vera’s diaries and letters she exchanged with friends and family. Although the Vera who was writing her memoirs in the 1930s wrote with an almost professional detachment at times, these extracts of diaries and letters made the book feel more personal. It was the little details like how she felt vibrations while working in London when large battles were occurring in France, and the fact that winters were so cold that their clothes were covered in a thin sheet of ice in the mornings that made me feel like I was experiencing it all with her. They also showed the effect of the War on her and the people around her, and the generation as a whole, better than anything else probably could. We see the growing cynicism of her friends who are serving, coupled with the way that they almost long for a death in War which contrasts greatly when compared to Vera’s later diaries where she criticises the idea that their ‘victory’ was a victory at all. Although at times, Vera Brittain’s objective approach sometimes made the book feel cold and perhaps more like a history book rather than an autobiography, these diaries and letters made up for it and are often emotive enough to move you to tears.

Vera Brittain (third from the left) while in Malta as a nurse.
Vera Brittain (third from the left) while in Malta as a nurse.

Testament of Youth also deals with various social and historical topics – the War itself and Brittain’s descriptions of her time as a nurse, the things that she saw, her experiences and those of the people around her are not only gripping but also informative. A woman’s perspective of the war tells us a lot about the home front; the fear felt at home, the men who were eager to fight but could not get enlisted due to their jobs or health, and those who like her brother had successfully enlisted but were initially kept at home. She also wrote of how the experience of working personally changed her and her ambitions. By 1924, after almost a decade of studying and working, she could barely contemplate the dream she had of being a wife and mother as being a possibility. The most inspiring part of the book in my opinion was the part of Vera’s memoirs set after the War when she began a career in journalism and politics, lecturing for the League of Nations and travelling to understand the impact of war. Her writings on pacifism and the war towards the end of the book were the most moving parts of the entire book as they showed the lessons that she had learned. Far from being a book restricted to discussions of the First World War, Vera’s writings on peace, politics, class, education and women are still relevant in our society today.

Overall, I would recommend Testament of Youth to readers for its interesting perspective into the life of young people during such a tumultuous time in recent history. Apart from the gripping and emotional ‘story’ side of reading the memoirs, many of the issues discussed and debated by Brittain are still incredibly relevant today.



Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Review – ‘My Own Story’ – Emmeline Pankhurst


Rating: ★★★★

Maybe you’ve heard it all before. Maybe you know all about the suffragettes. Think again. Although My Own Story, Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1914 autobiography, is not a new publication, there is a brand new edition being released on the 11th of December, here, which encouraged me to read the story I had never got around to. The one-hundred year anniversary of its publication is, of course, a perfect chance to take another look at a topic you perhaps thought you knew all about. I thought that, after studying various history modules on British politics, I knew enough about the suffrage movement to understand its development. I admired Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow suffragettes but until I read this book, I was unaware of the true extent of suffrage campaigning.

emline-pankhurstAlthough My Own Story is an autobiography, it is also a political-social commentary and a recounting of historical events. Despite it being written from Pankhurst’s personal perspective, it felt more informative and educative than anything I had been taught before about the suffrage movement. With extracts from both suffragette’s and parliamentary speeches, newspaper articles from both pro-suffrage and national publications and descriptions of major historical events, including some that I hadn’t heard of, I soon felt like I was learning more about the suffragettes than ever before. Looking back on my school experiences, I remember the rather negative portrayal of the suffragette movement, whose wild militancy delayed rather than hastened the extension of the franchise to women. That is why I would class ‘My Own Story’ as necessary reading for anybody with the slightest interest in political and/or social history and particularly those with an interest in women’s rights, democracy and activism. I was particularly surprised at learning of the widespread support for the cause of women’s enfranchisement, Westminster’s obstinacy in refusing to listen to demands, the high level of organisation of the W.S.P.U. and found the extracts from speeches rather moving.

The only criticism that I have for this book, which is completely unfair, as it has nothing to do with the writing itself, is that I wish Pankhurst had waited a few more years before writing it. Published in 1914, Pankhurst had yet to see what would happen during the First World War (1914-1918); she had not yet seen the role that women would take, and did not know that women would be enfranchised for the first time. I would have loved to read her thoughts on all of these developments. On the other hand, it is a touching reminder to anyone, especially women, who take their voting rights for granted that women fought and died for the right to vote. Take for instance, the following extract:

dczlbulOther histories of the militant movement will undoubtedly be written; in times to come when all constitutional countries of the world, all women’s votes will be as universally accepted as men’s votes are now; when men and women occupy the world of industry on equal terms, as co-workers rather than as cut-throat competitors; when, in a word, all the dreadful and criminal discriminations which exist now between the sexes are abolished, the historian will be able to sit down in leisurely fashion and do full justice o the strange story of how the women of England took up arms against the blind and obstinate Government of England and fought their way to political freedom. I should like to live long enough to read such a story, calmly considered, carefully analysed, conscientiously set forth.

‘My Own Story’ was an inspiring read which I sped through in only a few days, fitting it in and around my commute to school, between lectures, and then an extra few pages before bed. Although many people will have learned about the suffragettes at some point in their lives, it is nothing compared to reading about it from an actual suffragette, and especially such an important leader of the movement. This is a book about the fight for votes, and the struggle is emphasised in a way in which it is rarely portrayed in schools or in the media, thus shedding a new light on the issue. What is your opinion on the suffragettes? What do you think Emmeline Pankhurst and the other suffragettes would think of our world today?

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Review – ‘Angela’s Ashes’ – Frank McCourt

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In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt recalls his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. Although the subject matter itself and many of the stories contained within the book are heartbreaking, McCourt’s writing mixes tragic situations and events with a searingly honest and lighthearted voice. It was a heartbreaking yet marvellous read, filled with lifelike people, shocking anecdotes and Irish wit.

Born in New York to Irish parents, Frank’s family return to Ireland after tragedy strikes the family when a baby daughter dies. Angela’s Ashes describes the dire poverty and struggles Frank faced living in Limerick with his doting mother, determined to protect and provide for her children, and an alcoholic, almost perpetually unemployed father. As he grows, Frank becomes more and more determined to “be a man”, earn money, provide for his family, and return to the land of opportunity – America. This book follows not only his family life, but also describes many aspects of Frank McCourt’s Ireland; as a Catholic in a country divided by religion, and in a society which fears sin, Hell, and the English above all things.

5649-MAlthough Angela’s Ashes is undoubtedly a depressing story, what made it stand out to me was that McCourt’s writing style itself is not depressing. At no point does it feel like McCourt is trying to force you to feel sorry for him. In fact, his narrative style is often funny, and it had the childlike tone of a young boy who barely understands what is happening around him for much of the book. I also liked that although many terrible things happen to Frank and his family, like deaths in the family, characters were defined by their strength of character. For instance, when I think of the character of Angela, my feelings are not only of pity for her loss and suffering, but also admiration and respect for her bravery and determination.

The humour in Angela’s Ashes was another fantastic aspect of the book. Amid passages of so much suffering, such as having to use wood from the walls of the McCourt’s house to keep a fire going, there were anecdotes that made me stop and laugh, like Frank accidentally causing the roof of the house to collapse by taking wood from the beams holding up the structure. Similarly, whilst painting a picture of an Irish city completely preoccupied by the Catholic religion and the atrocities of the English against the Irish, there’s the glorious line where Frank says, “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” This line itself is a perfect example of Angela’s Ashes – a childhood mired in misery, suffering, and grief, all wrapped up with a bit of humour.

This humorous narrative voice also has the effect of making Angela’s Ashes a much more bearable read. I couldn’t have trudged through a 400-page book about children dying, walking around with broken shoes in the rain, being turned away from schools and struggling to make ends meat if every single word was written in an effort to make me weep. I would have surely ended up throwing the book across a room and wanting to tear my hair out – even with this humourous voice I felt guilty for taking the comforts in my life for granted! Also, this voice makes you really love Frank for his ability to make light of difficult times, and makes you root for him even when he does terrible things, like stealing money from employers (and even dead people), purely because he seems like the kind of guy who would cheer up your day. Its honesty and straight-talking tone makes you feel as if you are listening to the real Frank McCourt tell you stories – right from the horse’s mouth. At no point did I feel in the least bored by the story, nor at any point did I have to push myself to get through a particularly heavy, loaded with useless words passage. Rather, every single page felt like I was listening to a nice, chatty man tell me about his life.

In conclusion, I absolutely loved Angela’s Ashes. Despite having read that much of McCourt’s memoirs are exaggerated tales of his life, frankly, I don’t care. This book is so well written, that it feels like you are being transported into Limerick. You can almost feel the rain seeping through your clothes, you can almost smell the stink of the shared lavatory wafting in through the window, and you can feel the same drive that Frank feels when he plans his journey to America. And what else is a book like this supposed to do?