On My Bookshelf: My Best March Reads
Books. I love them. I love them so much, I’ve been a live-in volunteer in more than one bookshop, and I loved every second. As an avid bookworm, indulge me while I take a moment to share my favourite reads of the past month.
Oh, there were some goodies!
The Witchfinder’s Sister, by Beth Underdown
I love a good historical fiction novel, and I’ve come to notice a pattern emerging across my bookcase; if a cover features a mysterious setting (often a maze in the grounds of a palace), and a woman in period dress standing with her back to the camera, I’ll probably pick it up. In this case, while I’ve seen various editions, the cover of my copy features a woman in period dress, running away from the camera, through a mysterious, rural location. Needless to say, it’s a book very much to my tastes.
Selected for the Richard & Judy bookclub, Beth Underdown’s debut novel is a fictional retelling of the life of the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins. Told against the landscape of the English civil war, little is known of the life of the real Matthew Hopkins, and thus Underdown’s choice of narrator is a fictional sister, Alice. Recently widowed, Alice returns to her Essex hometown to join her brother’s household to find her brother changed. We follow as she attempts to understand him, struggling to come to terms with her brother’s new ‘calling’. She comes to wonder what made her brother the man he has become. Is he protecting the country from malicious witches in the name of God, or is he a little more than a serial killer of women, driven by his own misogyny?
A clever novel, Underdown masterfully highlights the precarious place in society faced by women in the 17th century, a time when any woman, whether through rivalry, quarrel, or simply by being an inconvenience, could find themselves accused of witchcraft.
The Regency Revolution, by Robert Morrison
There’s something about the first few decades of each century. It seems to be the decade in which, first of all, a global pandemic strikes, but more to the point, it’s also the decade in which people… go a bit wild.
Take the 1920s; the time of bobbed hair and flapper dresses. While nobody would bat an eyelid nowadays to anyone sporting a bob while wearing a knee-length, sleeveless dress (unless you do so in certain particularly conservative countries, of course), one century ago, such fashion was unheard of. Only a decade earlier, people were still horrified by the thought of a revealed ankle.
And what of the 1810s? The popular white floor-length gowns seen in Jane Austen period dramas may appear demure to us, but they were at the time considered, in equal measure, as virtuous; white signifying not only wealth, as pure white muslin was not suitable for daily toil, but also purity. Then again, Google women’s lingerie from the 18th to the early 19th century, and you’ll see where fashion influences emerged from. Like the chemise, those white gowns hung close to the body, revealing every curve. Shock horror!
It’s in this spirit that acclaimed academic Robert Morrison explores all areas of society during the near-decade-long period of the Regency, a time when King George III was in the throes of illness (then considered madness), and thus his son, the corpulent, wildly unpopular future King George IV, acted as regent.
I have to say, the tagline sums up this read perfectly:
[The Regency Years] During Which Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern
Need I say more? For those who wish to look beyond Austen’s quaint world, this is a wonderfully informative (yet never dull) read.
Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith
Oh, Patti. If there’s anyone who can make me want to pack a bag, grab my guitar and catch a flight to New York, or hop on the Eurostar to Paris, to do nothing more but grab a coffee in a cafe and watch the world go by, it’s Patti Smith.
For lovers of her first two memoirs; Just Kids, and M Train, comes her latest memoir, Year of the Monkey. I snapped this up on release day and then had a hard time holding back to savour the read. Because, of course, you can’t read a book for the first time, twice. I learnt that mistake with the Harry Potter series.
While Just Kids reminisces about her pre-fame years, life at the renowned Chelsea Hotel in New York, and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and M Train is a book in which Patti ruminates over coffee from Berlin to Mexico, reflecting on fame, motherhood, and marriage, in Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith takes us on a trip across the states, from Santa Cruz to Kentucky, as the year of the monkey proves to be one of change, trials and tribulations; grief, loss, the reckoning of facing one’s middle age, set against the backdrop of America’s turbulent changing political landscape. All this told in Patti Smith’s signature blend of memory and poetry.
In truth, Patti Smith could write out a detailed description of all the socks she’s ever own, and I’d read it. For artists and dreamers, read, and feel your heart swell.