Book of the Week

The Downe House library recommends you their latest Book of the Week.

6 July 2020

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou


Reviewed by Minty, LVI (Literary Senior)

The details that make it so repulsive and alien to our morality are the very reason it must be read, because to refuse this perspective out of principle is perhaps to pretend these things didn’t really happen.


I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is honestly one of the treasures of my bookshelf, not only for its superb craftsmanship, but for its honesty. It is the first of an autobiographical series by Angelou, a renowned African-American novelist. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings charts Angelou’s childhood from 3 to 16 in the 1930s and 40s. It begins with the divorce of her parents, as a result of which she and her brother Bailey were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Not only is this young child tormented by the abandonment of her parents, but also by her lack of self-confidence, especially when comparing herself with the idealised genteel white girls of the region.

The setting of her early years in rural Stamps is one where lynch mobs and vast wage disparities are the accepted norm. However, despite having idolised and yearned for her mother, living with her at 8 years old proves to be hardly a more desirable situation. As a child, she is molested and raped by her mother’s boyfriend Mr Freeman at their house in St Louis, Missouri. When Freeman is killed by underground associates of Maya’s family, Maya’s guilt and her fear that she is not a force for good cause her to become reclusive and isolated. Aside from these naturally traumatic experiences, Maya also endures white condescension at work, the claim of a white dentist that he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than operate on her teeth, and a teenage pregnancy…all before the age of 17.

Why I love it:

This book is simultaneously so shocking you want to shut it in the fridge, and so gripping you will hardly be able to put it down. The details that make it so repulsive and alien to our morality are the very reason it must be read, because to refuse this perspective out of principle is perhaps to pretend these things didn’t really happen. I love I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings because of its candour, and the fact she does not sugar coat her memories. She appears to be not only a fiercely strong woman, living alone and homeless for a month after escaping her father and his abusive girlfriend, but also an admirable champion of the rights of black people, even at such a young age. For example, at just 15 she defies racist hiring traditions to become the first black streetcar conductor in wartime San Francisco. Her character emerges from a childhood she did not deserve, stronger and more self-assured. I feel this book should be especially prevalent now, to remind us of past suffering, so that we can prove society has changed. I don’t think I can ever pretend to know how the ‘caged bird’ must have felt, nor how it continued to ‘sing’ despite the bars, but thanks to this book I am beginning to understand.

Throne of Glass

Sarah J. Maas


It appeals to everything I like; a strong female lead; a fantasy world; and a deep and gripping storyline.

Review in The Guardian

Do you love fantasy fiction? Are you looking for the next Hunger Games, Divergent or Twilight? Look no further – we now have, in the library, the Sarah J. Maas series, Throne of Glass.

Throne of Glass takes its inspiration from the story of Cinderella. The twist is that Cinderella is not a servant but a hired assassin tasked with the duty of killing the prince at the ball.

Seen the film? Now read the book!

Catch 22

Joseph Heller


The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.



  • a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions


  • a pilot continuing to fly combat missions without asking for relief is regarded insane, but is considered sane enough to continue flying if he does make such a request

Seen the film? Now read the book!

Caging Skies

Christine Leunens


The great danger of lying is not that lies are untruths, and thus unreal, but that they become real in other people’s minds.”

The basis of the Oscar nominated anti-hate satire film Jojo Rabbit.

An avid member of the Hitler Youth in the 1940s, Johannes discovers his parents are hiding a Jewish girl called Elsa behind a false wall in their large house in Vienna. His initial horror turns to interest, then love and obsession.

Seen the film / series? Now read the book!

Northern Lights

Philip Pullman


Religion, mortality and talking animals combine to gift us a series that captures Pullman’s magnus opus in all its glory.

The Guardian

The highly recommended BBC/HBO adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a far, far superior production to the watered-down Golden Compass of 2007.

The book, published in 1995 and acclaimed as a modern masterpiece, is set in a parallel universe, without electricity and where the world is ruled by the sinister Magisterium. Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live carefree among scholars at Jordan College, Oxford. The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands of the Arctic where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her world…

Without this child, we shall all die…

Seen the film? Now read the book!

David Copperfield

Charles Dickens


Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness.

Charles Dickens’ classic story, David Copperfield, tells the story of a young boy who escapes from the cruelty of his childhood home and embarks on a journey to adulthood which leads him through comedy and tragedy, love and heartbreak and friendship and betrayal. Over the course of his adventures, David meets an array of eccentric characters and learns hard lessons. This is probably the most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels and one that he describes as his ‘favourite child’.

This new film adaptation of the book by Armando Ianucci stars Dev Patel in the title role and Ben Whishaw as the creepily sycophantic Uriah Heep.

Seen the film? Now read the book!


Jane Austen


Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Recently shown in a cinema near you, the latest in a long line of film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s classic tale of privilege and entitlement starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Downe House alumna, Miranda Hart. Billed as a ‘glittering satire of social class and the pain of growing up’, this is the story of Emma whose pride and self-delusion will be her undoing as she meddles in the love lives of those around her and causes all kinds of hurt and chaos.

Often said to be Austen’s most accomplished novel – a must-read! As a bonus, why not watch the 90s American teen comedy film, Clueless, which is loosely based on Austen’s Emma.

Seen the film? Now read the book!


Bram Stoker


Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!

Anybody who has seen the recent BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula will know that it is not for the squeamish! But it is highly entertaining – in turns very scary but also funny, albeit in a camp kind of way. Really worth watching on iPlayer.

The book was written in 1897 by Irish author, Bram Stoker. It is one of the first and greatest books in the Gothic horror genre and tells the story of a blood sucking Count who moves from his home in Transylvania to England so that he can find new blood and spread the undead curse. But his plans may be thwarted by Professor Van Helsing…( a character that is transformed into the superb Sister Agatha in the TV adaptation).

Seen the film? Now read the book!

Little Women

Louisa May Alcott


Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another.

The latest adaptation of Louisa M. Alcott’s classic book, directed by Greta Gerwig, is in cinemas now. Take your tissues as it’s guaranteed to make you cry, but it is moving without being manipulative.

This is the story of the March sisters – four young women each determined to live life on their own terms. Although they may be poor, their lives are rich with colour as they play games, put on wild theatricals, make new friends, argue, learn from their mistakes, nurse each other through sickness and disappointments and get into all sorts of trouble.

The Testaments

Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Madison, UVI


As expected, The Testaments explores the control and indoctrination of women through the eyes of the women subjected to it.

Madison, UVI

Following a 34 year wait, last year Margaret Atwood finally published her long-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Whether it was the result of a flash of inspiration possibly provoked by the pervading discrimination of women, or simply a way to capitalise on the hit TV series, will never be known for sure. It is certainly true, perhaps disconcertingly, that nearly three decades after The Handmaid’s Tale was published, the patriarchal dystopia that is depicts is still somewhat pertinent in the light of #MeToo and the misogynistic comments and actions of world leaders.

Set several years after the birth of Gilead, the story is told from the perspective of two young women, both of whom do not remember a time before the existence of the tyrannical state, and the infamous Aunt Lydia. Throughout the course of the book, the fates of the three become aligned and it becomes clear that they will be instrumental in deciding the destiny of Gilead. It was interesting to discover a side of Aunt Lydia that readers of the Handmaid’s Tale would have been totally unaware of; we begin to sympathize with her as we understand her motives and the lack of choices for women in this society. As she gains power and influence, the survival of the state’s corrupt power structures soon become dependent on the outcome of Aunt Lydia’s inner moral turmoil.

Through Agnes, the second narrator, the reader discovers what life is like for a woman of high status who has grown up in a world where Gilead, and its extremist doctrine, is the only thing she knows. After years of indoctrination, she seems to develop doubts about the regime with remarkably little difficulty, which is one of a few surprising and perhaps unrealistic parts of the novel. While less likeable than her counterparts, the third narrator’s courage and boisterousness provide a breath of fresh air in an environment of stifling conformity. The inclusion of these young women as the main characters ensures that the novel is geared even more towards readers of teen dystopia, as Atwood continues her characteristically straightforward, plot-driven style which makes her works approachable for all.

While the ending formed a neat parallel to the previous novel in its approach, it was certainly more carefully crafted and had a less rushed feel. However, it is clear that Atwood’s tendency to leave many questions unanswered has not disappeared. It is up to the reader to decide whether this is a skillful and necessary narrative device, or it leaves you almost as unsatisfied as you were when you first finished the final chapter of the Handmaid’s Tale.


Margaret Atwood


Hag-Seed is a literary delight, a novel of revenge told with a wicked glee… creative imagination and wild scenarios. A pleasure from start to finish.

The Washington Times

You don’t need to be a fan of Shakespeare to enjoy this clever re-telling of The Tempest. Atwood’s modern version is a funny and heart-warming tale of revenge and redemption. Felix, the Prospero of the piece, is a wronged artistic director of a theatre festival. He has been cast aside by his Machiavellian rival just as he was about to launch his greatest production – of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.

Twelve years on, Felix is working as an acting tutor in a correctional facility, where he comes up with a plan to wreak his revenge on his nemesis, Tony.

Brilliant, humorous and emotionally rich – this is Atwood at her best.

Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan

There are many pleasures and moments of profound disquiet in this book, which shows McEwan’s mastery of storytelling

The Guardian

Ian McEwan is one of the UK’s outstanding living writers. His latest novel, Machines Like Me, is set in an alternative 1980s. Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn battle for power and, crucially, Alan Turing has survived and delivered a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.

Charlie is a drifter, in love with Miranda, a bright student with a dark secret. When Charlie comes into some money, he buys Adam, one of the first synthetic humans. With Miranda’s help, he designs Adam’s personality and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops, confronting these three with a profound moral dilemma.

The Skylarks’ War

Hilary McKay


Beautifully written, witty, observant… Merits a place in the canon of children’s classics.

The Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Year

Winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award, 2018, The Skylarks’ War is the moving story of a family growing up through the years of the First World War, chronicling their lives, loves and losses. Clarry, her brother Peter and her cousin Rupert live for their long summers spent with their grandparents in Cornwall. But as the war grows ever closer and Rupert leaves to fight at the front, their childhood begins to slip away.

The Costa Book Award judges called the book ‘as perfect a novel as you could ever read.’


You are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Date to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything

Matthew Syed


Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected.
J. K. Rowling

You Are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything is the inspiring, award-winning book from journalist and Olympian Matthew Syed.

“I’m no good at sport…I can’t do maths…I struggle with exams.” Sound familiar? If you believe you can’t do something, chances are you won’t try. But what if you could excel at anything you put your mind to? You Are Awesome can help you do just that. Syed will empower you to find the confidence to reach your potential.

Don’t believe it? Read the book and find out!


Tara Westover


Curiosity is a luxury for the financially secure.

This is the astonishing memoir of a girl, raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, the youngest of seven children. Her father did not believe in formal education or hospitals. Tara spent her childhood salvaging in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother’s medicinal remedies. No one intervened when her older brother became violent towards her and serious injuries were treated by her mother’s faith healing.

Lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough maths and grammar to gain a place at Brigham Young University to study history and eventually ended up with a PhD from Cambridge.

A remarkable story of triumph over adversity.

The Testaments

Margaret Atwood


The long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale has arrived at Downe House Library. This is Margaret Atwood’s advice to you should you choose to read this book:

You hold in your hands a dangerous weapon loaded with the secrets of three women from Gilead. They are risking their lives for you. For all of us.

Before you enter this world, you might want to arm yourself with these thoughts:

Knowledge is power.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

Reviewed by Hannah, UIV

The Hate U Give is a book based on hidden issues in modern society, focusing on racism and inequality. It begins with Starr, a 16-year-old African-American girl, who is struggling to choose between the two worlds she lives in – the poor black neighbourhood she has lived in her whole life and her upper-class suburban prep school. When her friend Khalil is shot dead, the police officer responsible is not blamed.

Throughout the book the characters became more three-dimensional as the plot thickens. And sadly, what happens in the story occurs in every day life for some people. The characters become more interesting as the story develops, which creates a more tense atmosphere, as certain characters’ opinions change dramatically.

I felt the book was saddening, as it shows how this happens frequently, and not just in stories.

It also created a great sense of community, strength of people and determination.

The story definitely made me want to keep on reading and it was very exciting all the way through. Overall, I think it is probably suitable for age 12+ and is an enlightening story to read.

I would give this 5/5.

Girl, Missing

Sophie McKenzie

Reviewed by Cecilia, UIV

It was such a good book that I had to finish it in one night as I couldn’t stop reading as it was SO gripping!

Cecilia, UIV

Lauren is adopted and is eager to learn about her past and her birth parents. When she realises on a website that she may be a missing child who was snatched from her real family, she runs away to find out what happened when she was three-years-old. What happened on the day she disappeared?

The characters felt very real and I felt as if I was there in the story while reading it, therefore I couldn’t put it down! The book was a real page turner as you wanted to get to the end of the story to make sure all ended well and it was a good ending as it constantly kept me guessing!

As a whole, the book was amazingly written because you couldn’t predict what would happen next. It made me laugh and cry at different moments as some parts were sweet but some parts were thrilling and scary because something bad might happen.

In summary, I think this book is for ages 11-16 as it relates to those ages but I’m sure anyone would enjoy it (just not too young as it might be too scary!) The book is a thriller but also romantic, touching and uplifting, making you feel like you can do anything as well as appreciate your family and friends a lot. I would rate the book five stars.

On the Frontline with the Women Who Fight Back

Stacey Dooley

Reviewed by Jocelyn, UIV

Hand on heart, there was nothing I disliked about the book and I would strongly recommend it to everyone.

Jocelyn, UIV

This is about Stacy Dooley’s encounters with, and reactions to, many strong and inspiring women who stand strong against all odds and fight hard for what they believe in. This book really opened my eyes to so many problems and let me have a better understanding of them.

One of the characters I remember most is Eva, a mother of five children in Cushillo Cocha, Peru, who stood strong against planting and growing coca (cocaine plant) for many years until she saw other children with a better education and finally gave in to increase the family income. She was strong and determined and I admire her for that.

The book made me cry multiple times, because I felt very fortunate and grateful for everything I had compared to some people who struggle to afford the basic necessities of life. After reading the book, I have learnt so much about global issues that I never encounter and seem so distant from my life. I believe we should raise awareness about these issues and provide help and support for the less fortunate in society.

Hand on heart, there was nothing I disliked about the book and I would strongly recommend it to everyone. People who are interested in feminism should definitely read it. I would give this book ten out of ten.

Looking for Alaska

John Green


Looking for Alaska is a showcase to the raw talent John Green has, the kind of talent that can make you close the crisp last page of a novel and come out a different person.”

The Guardian

‘If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane’.

Miles Halter or “Pudge” as he is referred to throughout the book, is tired of his dull, friendless life in Florida and persuades his parents to send him away to boarding school where he meets Alaska Young, a moody, clever and wild girl who he falls for. The narrative leads towards a calamitous event, the aftermath of which will have you gripped until the last page.

This is a story of young love and growing up, with all of the humour and the highs, the pain and the pitfalls of teenage life thrown in.


Madeline Miller


Circe back as a superwoman… Miller’s Me Too-era, kickass portrait of a woman trying to defy the men and Fates arrayed against her is enchanting.”

The Times

From the Orange Prize-winning, internationally bestselling author of The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller, comes another compelling story, this time of the mythological witch Circe. From the few lines Circe is given in Homer’s The Odyssey, Miller creates a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss.

The immortal witch Circe is banished by the Gods to the island if Aiaia where she hones her occult craft. Among the guests who arrive on her island domain is the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.

You Got This

Bryony Gordon


A book that every teenage girl needs to read…”

Fearne Cotton

Life lessons for every teenage girl

‘I wanted to be a unicorn. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be an astronaut. But the thing I really wanted to be, more than anything else, was a little less like me. It was only recently that I realised not wanting to be me was at the heart of every dumb decision I ever made. And so now I am writing this book containing all the life lessons I wish someone had taught me. A book for the teenage girl in me. And every teenage girl out there. Because the most powerful thing you can be when you grow up is yourself.’ Briony Gordon.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

By Heather Morris


I tattooed the number on her arm and she tattooed her number in my heart.

A love story with depth

An immensely readable, if at times, harrowing novel based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. All prisoners were tattooed on the arm with a unique identification number and Lale becomes the man who brands every person that arrives at the camps. In the course of his work, he tattoos a young woman called Gita.

What follows is essentially a love story, set against the backdrop of the horrific atrocities and cruelty experienced by those who are forced to be there. Against seemingly impossible odds, Lale risks his life to smuggle in food and medicines to keep his fellow inmates alive, not least his beloved Gita. Moving and life-affirming – this story will leave a lasting impression.

Liked what you read?

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