Thursdays, 6pm, BBC 2 was the highlight of my social calendar when I was growing up. It was an hour of unbridled joy: watching a small blonde (very much like myself) delivering sarcastic comments, defeating the evil dead (and the evil living), and dealing with life as a young adult. Dad and I would settle down on our old brown sofas and share a bag of Malteasers, neither of us speaking (rare) for the full 60 minutes.
Buffy, along with Lyra Belacqua, Hermione Granger and the Saddle Club girls, shaped my impressionable young self. In tricky situations – either with boys, friends or parents – I’d often think what would Buffy do? What would Lyra do? I used their novels and shows like a religious text; they guided me through a tumultuous time of life.
It’s no different now. Life is still tricky. And I still look to my fictional heroines for guidance and wisdom when my own experiences let me down.
So, I’ve put together five reads from 2019 that are packed with girl-gang vibes, strong independent women and valuable life lessons.
Hope you enjoy – and let me know if you have any others to add!
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
Read if you want:
- Lessons in getting back on your feet after humiliation, betrayal and exile
- Lyrical, witty language
- A non-stop tour of Greek mythology
- A badass goddess who takes no shit from men
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
Read if you want:
- A sarcastic, dry narrator who doesn’t take any shit
- A lesson in dealing with regret and staying strong
- To hear the other side of Odysseus’ macho story
- To get beyond the ‘weeping, faithful wife’ trope
“The songs say I didn’t notice a thing because Athene distracted me. If you believe that, you’ll believe all sorts of nonsense.”
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.
As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.
Read if you want:
- A funny yet painful account of getting through heartbreak
- To learn how tough life can be as a black woman
- Your eyes opened to fetishisation, gentrification and racism
- A heart-warming, poignant love story to girlfriends and family
“I looked first at Gina, then around the room to see if anyone was going to back me up. Instead, I was met with what I’d been trying to pretend hadn’t always been a room full of white not-quite-liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited.”
Everything I Know About Love
A spot-on, wildly funny and sometimes heart-breaking book about growing up, growing older and navigating all kinds of love along the way
In her memoir, she vividly recounts falling in love, wrestling with self-sabotage, finding a job, throwing a socially disastrous Rod-Stewart themed house party, getting drunk, getting dumped, realising that Ivan from the corner shop is the only man you’ve ever been able to rely on, and finding that that your mates are always there at the end of every messy night out. It’s a book about bad dates, good friends and – above all else – about recognising that you and you alone are enough.
Glittering, with wit and insight, heart and humour, Dolly Alderton’s powerful début weaves together personal stories, satirical observations, a series of lists, recipes, and other vignettes that will strike a chord of recognition with women of every age – while making you laugh until you fall over. Everything I know About Love is about the struggles of early adulthood in all its grubby, hopeful uncertainty.
Read if you want:
- An honest, hilarious account of learning about life, love and yourself
- Tears of sadness one minutes and joy the next
- A best friend in a book
- A beautifully-written story with proper belly-laugh anecdotes
“Life is a wonderful, mesmerizing, magical, fun, silly thing. And humans are astounding. We all know we’re going to die, and yet we still live. We shout and curse and care when the full bin bag breaks, yet with every minute that passes we edge closer to the end. We marvel at a nectarine sunset over the M25 or the smell of a baby’s head or the efficiency of flat-pack furniture, even though we know that everyone we love will cease to exist one day. I don’t know how we do it.”
A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…
From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.
That was five years ago. Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.
But the autopsy finds no cancer. The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation. Who could possibly want Diana dead? Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?
Read if you want:
- A well-written mystery with a bloody brilliant twist
- A raw depiction of mother-daughter expectations
- A defiance of stereotypes and celebration of unrequited love
- A story so gripping that you’ll miss your stop on the tube
“I could have written more, but in the end, there’s really only two pieces of wisdom worth leaving behind. I worked hard for everything I ever cared about. And nothing I ever cared about cost a single cent.”