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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 3 January 2014
Debut author Samantha Ellis tells the story of her coming of age and the construction of selfhood through the books she has read. The result is a marvellously fresh, original and gripping book, funny and intelligent, charming and self-deprecating and, ultimately, moving. It is a kind of feminist manifesto seen through the lenses of a girl's reading material. The self is a constantly shifting, changing, dynamic thing and Ellis is perfectly attuned to this, so her interpretations of her favourite books and their heroines change over time too. And the gallery of books featuring these female protagonists is wide and all-embracing -- Wuthering Heights sits beside Lace, Gone With The Wind with The Bell Jar. The thread that binds everything is Ellis's own life, as a girl growing up in the UK as part of the Iraqi Jewish community. This book is that very rare thing -- a wonderfully entertaining read that is also scintillatingly intelligent. It will also make you revisit the classics that mark your own reading life.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 March 2014
Playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis presents us with an appealing exploration of her literary (and some not quite so literary) heroines. As the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants with traditional values, her shoulders are heaped with certain expectations from an early age but there's just one that really counts - and it's a biggie: making the perfect match with a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy from amongst the approved "son pool" of their tight-knit émigré community. Although Samantha would like to respect her parents' wishes, she wants passionately to plough her own furrow and be the heroine of her own life. Perhaps the heroines from her favourite reading will show her the way...

I love Samantha Ellis's writing style: lucid, wry and very easy to warm to. But it was when I reached page 191 that I actually fell in love with her! As part of this exercise, she revisits all the books she loved in her youth and finds that her feelings towards them have evolved. Indeed, when it comes to her favourite, Wuthering Heights, her feelings towards it have radically changed. With older, wiser eyes, she sums it up thus: "It's savage stuff, but it's also just so...can I say it?...melodramatic." I completely agree. I also agreed with her mature take on Little Women; one forgets (or has blanked out) just how sanctimonious Louisa May Alcott's golden classic truly is.

But it's not all classics; Samantha Ellis writes about other books that have influenced her too such as Valley of the Dolls and Shirley Conran's Lace. And with each heroine she describes, she weaves the relevant stage of her own story into the sub-text. Personally, I would have welcomed hearing more of Samantha's own story. It sounds as though it would be so interesting and inspirational in its own right. Perhaps one day she'll tell it and provide a new heroine to influence a whole new generation of young women...
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Samantha Ellis grew up in London, she's the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees and for her, the 80s and 90s consisted of listening to her parents wistful memories of their homeland, being made aware that she would have to find a husband who was acceptable ..... and reading books. Ellis had many literary heroines; from Anne of Green Gables to Sylvia Plath, through to Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights.

These heroines remained with her into adulthood, each one of them having a special meaning and evoking memories of the time in her life when she read about them. When she and her best friend visit Haworth, the birthplace of the Bronte sisters, they find themselves arguing about who was the best heroine; Jane Eyre or Cathy? Feeling disheartened by the fact that she had spent her life trying to be like Cathy, Samantha Ellis went back to her heroines. She read their stories again, with older, more experienced eyes and How To Be A Heroine is the result of her re-reading.

This is a witty, warm and very reflective read. Most of us will have some childhood literary heroines, those characters who have accompanied through life and never changed. Going back and revisiting those heroines was a brave thing to do, nobody wants to find that they were wrong, and our icons are actually just as flawed, if not more, than we are ourselves.

Samantha Ellis tells her own story throughout this book, and how her reading influenced some of her decisions and some of her dreams. Her family are interesting, her own life is quite eventful and her warm and wry style of writing holds the attention throughout.

It's interesting to read about how Ellis' attitudes towards her heroines changed over time and how they influenced her at the time of reading. I love the way that she gets so annoyed with authors at times, not holding back from criticising Louisa May Alcott, Dickens and even Shakespeare at times. Berating Shakespeare for killing Juliet and getting so angry about Jo's fate in Little Women.

A totally entertaining and insightful book that will make the reader want to dash to the shelf of much loved books and read them all over again.
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HALL OF FAMEon 10 January 2014
This is such a brilliant idea - a young woman's autobiography via heroines of literary and popular fiction - that I almost hoped it would be bad. It isn't. It's beautifully written, very funny and full of the kind of insight you only get from honesty and intelligence. Ellis's account of growing up in England as part of an Iraqi-Jewish family add another dimension to a book thousands of women readers will love, as she learns from obvious heroines like Elizabeth Bennett to less obvious ones like The Dolls (as in Valley of). I'd like to give this to all my women friends - and my daughter.
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on 14 August 2015
For anyone who has loved books since childhood, this book is an absolute treat. The author re-evaluates all her fictional heroines, from Ballet School to Lace, with great wit and skill. I had to reluctantly agree that my beloved Cathy Earnshaw doesn't stand up well in comparison to Jane Eyre, who I'd previously considered a bit of a drip. Likewise, Katy Carr is not as much fun as I remembered, but Anne Shirley still makes the grade. Reading this was like having a wonderful conversation with a fellow book lover and I was disappointed when it ended. It also introduced me to some heroines I don't yet know, and as a result, my to-read list is longer than ever! I can't recommend this highly enough to reading addicts.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 20 January 2015
Oh how I wish I'd written this! Though I'm not nearly as well read as Ellis, it was lovely to travel with her through her own personal history of books and watch her struggle to amalgamate the best of their heroines into her own self.

Very honestly, she paints a portrait of herself as a youngster and through to adulthood, the mistakes she made, the chances she took, and the books she read as she lived.

This is one that will appeal to women especially, as it is all about female characters - from Anne Shirley to Elizabeth Bennett, Katy Carr to Jane Eyre (and a lot of modern characters I'll admit to never having met myself) - and the effect they've had on her life. I especially like the way in which Ellis discusses how her younger self viewed these characters and how she views them now as a mature adult with life experience. It made me think about my interpretations of some of them.

I don't know if I'm one of many or on my own when I say that I never tried to take cues from literary heroines or learn from their fictional lives - to me they were always fiction and I enjoyed their stories, not trying to base my own personality and choices on them (thank goodness - What Katy Did is horrific!), but I admire her honesty, and really loved what the author had to say.

She's a talented writer as well, drawing comparisons and chapters around related characters or themes, in what must for her be a very full and twisty literary landscape.

It's a good book for reminding yourself why some of your favourites will always be your favourites, but also because Ellis covers plots of the books she discusses, a great way of discovering literary heroines you've never come across. Though she will never persuade me to read Jackie Collins, I think I understand why the books have appeal now.

Just loved this, could hardly bear to put it down, knowing which childhood nostalgic reads were coming up next.... Highly recommended.
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on 16 June 2014
I enjoyed Ms Ellis's contemporary look at the classics. The book reminded me of my own past reading and encouraged me to revisit some. On occasions the association between the author's life experiences and those of her literary heroines appeared to be somewhat forced, but I on the whole I enjoyed reading about her life, appreciated her conversational style, and look forward to future books by this author.
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on 13 January 2014
This book was such a delight to read. I ate it up in a day. Samantha Ellis does a beautiful job of reacquainting the reader with old friends and also offering up a massive and varied reading list of as yet unknown wonders. One of my favourite elements of the book was the sheer enthusiasm Ms Ellis writes with. Only a true fan of reading could talk with the same amount of glee and joyful analysis about The Brontes' and also Jilly Cooper. There was not one note of literary snobbery! Her personal story is really deftly interwoven with heroines from different times of her life. It is very funny with a wealth of interesting and beautiful details. Highly recommended!
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on 15 April 2014
this read like a long, pleasant, conversational blog post, in a good way. i came away with a thirst to revisit old favourites and a long list of new books to devour. there's a delightful sketch of what would happen if scarlett o'hara, holly golightly, cathy of wuthering heights, elizabeth bennett, jane eyre and many others were to attend the same party.
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on 17 June 2014
I fell for the first part of the title, but it turned out to be another 'me' book. Maybe it is just 'me,' but I managed to read a vast amount of literature in my youth without ever imagining (a) that I was one of the characters; or (b) that the author had to be writing about him/herself? I'm a great believer in 'write what you know,' but not all the time!
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