Archived entries for Themes

Back To School

As the nights draw in and we enter the last week of August, in her latest series on Book Themes for The Substantive, Joanne Sheppard writes on school in literature.

September’s nearly upon us, bringing falling leaves, shorter days and  Keats’ ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – but more importantly, endless ‘Back To School’ promotions in the shops and, despite being 36, an almost primeval urge to buy smart new black leather lace-ups and a new pencil case. I can only assume that spending thirteen years of my life at school has left an indelible impression on me, and I don’t think I’m alone: in the world of literature, stories about school are by no means confined to the children’s section of the library. Continue reading…

Historical Fiction

In the latest in her series on Themes for The Substantive, Joanne Sheppard writes about Books on Historical Fiction, including works by Hilary Mantel, Michel Faber, Diana Norman and AS Byatt.

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, a sequel to her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, has recently arrived in bookshops in a flurry of hype. I haven’t read it yet, so I couldn’t say whether the excitement about its publication is justified, but frankly, if it’s even half as compelling a read as Wolf Hall, it will be worthy of any praise heaped upon it.

James Wood, a professor of literary criticism at Harvard University and also a reviewer of books for the New Yorker, recently claimed that the historical fiction is “a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness.” I don’t know anything about James Wood, and based on that statement I don’t believe I want to, but I rather wonder what his definition of “greatness” is.

In fairness, Wood did like Wolf Hall, at least – and rightly so. Wolf Hall is one of those historical novels that manages to be both intimate, minute in focus and yet also broad in scope. Continue reading…

Books on Books

A couple of weeks ago, on 23 April, it was World Book Night. Distinct from World Book Day, which mostly seems to involve harassed parents having to dress their child as Harry Potter or Mr Tumnus or the twitching corpse of a slaughtered teenager from The Hunger Games, World Book Night is when people get to give away free copies of a book from a selection chosen by a panel, from nominees provided by a public vote. A lot of these books weren’t actually very good, but that’s what happens when you let the public vote for things: Nick Clegg in government, Olly Murs in the charts, and Sophie Kinsella novels dished out on World Book Night.

One thing I did notice was that two of the books on the list that are very good are, fittingly, about books. So I thought I’d use the opportunity to recommend them, and a few more books about books too. Continue reading…

The Kids Are Not Alright

Good kids gone bad

The survival of the human species presumably depends on us mostly liking children. And yet we seem to produce countless narratives about kids that are at best rather creepy and at worst, literally the spawn of the Devil. We’ve all seen plenty of scary-child films – The Shining and The Omen have left me with a strange phobia of small children on tricycles – but the creepy kid appears frequently in literature too, presumably because we fear the slightly grotesque juxtaposition of innocence and evil. Continue reading…


As we all know, 14 February is named after St Valentine, the patron saint of greetings card companies, expensive set menus and stalkers. It’s at this time of year that we’re all supposed to abandon good taste, buy horrid shiny underwear and overpriced roses, and pay double the normal rate for a meal because it comes with a glass of Prosecco and a heart-shaped shortbread. Apparently, this has been deemed ‘romance’. Continue reading…


In the bleak midwinter, I suggest you curl up with a book. I realise most reserve their peak reading weeks for summer, when they’re on holiday, but reading on your sofa by the fire with a cuppa knocks spots off beach reading. Winter nights are long and dark and the weather’s mostly rotten; it’s the ideal season to get cosy and lose yourself in a book, particularly now, after Christmas, when you’ve probably overdosed on both television and human company. Continue reading…

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