Inspirational female authors: Roxane Gay

Throughout 2018 we are reviewing one book a month written by a woman, to celebrate the centenary of women legally being able to vote. This month I have chosen the first non fiction book on the list: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays about a wide range of subjects including pop music, sexuality, scrabble, women’s legal rights, privilege, sexual violence, reality TV, Chris Brown, female friends, The Hunger Games, body issues and Orange is the New Black. The essays are all in some way an exploration of feminism today.

From the outset Roxane Gay introduces herself as a ‘bad feminist’. Throughout the book she convincingly argues that there might be more than one perfect way to be a feminist. She also explores feminism from the often overlooked perspective of black and LGBT women. It is part essay and part memoir as she shares very personal stories of her life.

I don’t normally read a lot of non fiction but I was hooked by this book straightaway and it was an engaging read. Some parts are funny, some parts are emotionally challenging and she is always insightful. A lot of what she said resonated with me and it made me reevaluate some of my opinions. There is such an array of subjects examined that even if you don’t agree with everything she says, there will be something to interest you.

She also discusses a lot of books I haven’t read yet so it has given me a whole list of things I want to read!

You can see the previous reviews of inspirational women writers for May, April and March See you in July.

Philippa, Brompton Library

Parties, Presents and Peers: an A-Z of London’s Mid-Century Models

In April this year, Chelsea Library marked 40 years since it moved to its present site, at Chelsea Old Town Hall. We celebrated that anniversary in the Sixties fashion style, since the library is famous for its extensive Costume and fashion collection. It has a wide range of books on the history of costume from its earliest times to present days, stage costumes, the history of twentieth century dress, including books on prominent designers, and so on.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve decided to bring back fashion talks and workshops to the library. We invited John-Michael O’Sullivan to give a talk on ‘Parties, Presents and Peers: an A-Z of London’s Mid-Century Models’.

He spoke about top Fifties fashion model, Barbara Mullen, and he has compiled an extraordinary list of celebrities, fashion models, fashion designers, film icons and aristocrats for his talk. From debutantes to Teddy Girls, and from Carnival Queens to couture stars, the lives of the women whose images shaped Britain’s beauty ideal in the 1950s, and continue to do so today, need to be better known to a wider audience.

The audience at Chelsea Library was, indeed, very much impressed by John-Michael’s captivating talk. Charming and witty he led us through this extraordinary alphabet of mid-century models, occasionally interrupted by loud sighs and comments from the engaged listeners, several of them having personal connections with the mentioned models.

In his article for The Observer, about Barbara Mullen, the misfit model of the 1950s, John-Michael wrote:

“The era’s other great models (sex bomb Suzy Parker, platinum blonde Sunny Harnett, long-limbed Dovima, all-American Jean Patchett, exquisite Evelyn Tripp) were always reliably, recognisably themselves. But Mullen was different – beanpole-tall, with slicked-back hair, startled eyes and a rosebud mouth. Her features, in front of a lens, somehow morphed, endlessly transforming her into somebody else.”

While I was gathering information for the talk, flicking through our collection of Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars  from the  1950s, I found it extremely difficult to find the names of those gorgeous models, yet, everything else was listed – from gowns, lipstick, jewellery, to location and the photographer’s name. That was the time before Twiggy, before Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer or Kate Moss – before the times of superstars.

As John-Michael wrote:

“These days, most top models are social media stars in their own right and have the power to shape and share their stories themselves. But most of their predecessors died without ever being given the chance to share their experiences. Barbara Mullen, who turned ninety in 2017, is one of the few survivors of a remarkable era.”

Charming and modest Barbara told John-Michael that she and her friends were just ordinary girls – young, thin and extremely lucky. She was wondering why people today would be interested in their lives.

John-Michael has launched a campaign with publishing house, Unbound which is producing books by crowdfunding. He has been gathering the funds to print ‘The Replacement Girl’ Mullen’s first biography. I am sure that it will be fascinating to see that era “through the eyes of one of that pioneering generation’s last survivors”.

For more information on the fundraising campaign to publish Barbara’s story, visit: Unbound’s website

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018: winner

Fiona and Philippa at Brompton Library have been reviewing some of the books long and shortlisted for this  year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The winner was announced on Wednesday, and Fiona is back with her thoughts –

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 has been announced and I personally wasn’t surprised.  Although I haven’t read all of the shortlisted books, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie really stood out as a powerful and relevant novel.  Here is the review I did a couple of weeks ago before the result was announced –


A retelling of Antigone, a Greek tragedy about a girl in love with the son of a politician who will not allow the body of her dead brother be buried in Greece.  This was not one of my first choices and it took me a while to really get into the story.

Told from the viewpoint of each of the characters, the book starts with older sister Isma leaving London following the death of her mother and the disappearance of her brother, to study in the States.  Here she meets Eamonn, the son of a controversial British Muslim politician whose past is related to her father’s.  The story then comes back to London, as Eamonn returns to his family home and introduces himself to Isma’s sister and aunt in Wembley.

The book is written in simple and direct prose.  As the story develops and comes to its peak, this simple style makes the tragedy at the heart of the story all the more powerful.  Shamsie takes us on a journey from the beginning with its sense of distance, detachment and secrecy, into the quiet world of a young and vulnerable man whose own losses lead him away from his family and into compelling world of extremism and finally to the heart-breaking end, played out on the world stage.

This is a story about truth, extremism at both ends of the spectrum, family duty versus moral duty, cultural identity vs personal identity but most importantly it’s a story about love and loss. This was not one of my first choices to read but I am so glad I did and am guessing it will be in with a very good chance of winning the prize as all the books I have read have been very good, but this one stands out.  It is a powerful novel, deeply moving and thought provoking, using an ancient story to highlight such a modern issue in an intimate and personal way.

Fiona, Brompton Library

Chelsea in Bloom

crownAre you looking forward to doing something uplifting, something that puts smile on your face – effortlessly?

Have you seen flower displays around Chelsea?
There is no better way to celebrate the start of summer than visiting Chelsea in Bloom.
Download the map and vote for your favourite display!

Whether you want to take selfie with Frida Kahlo, peep through the gorgeous ‘diamond’ ring, giggle with the funny skeletons, admire a bus made of carnations, floral flags, regal swans or just smile and sigh while gazing at roses, camellias, lilies, freesia, sweet peas, chrysanthemums, gerbera  … you will enjoy your stroll.
The flower displays are so inspirational, cheeky, lavish, splendid … Pure pleasure!

Just one thing, if I can recommend, wherever you start your tour, quickly pop to  Chelsea Library and grab a book – Jessie Burton’s “The Muse” or one of Elly Griffiths’ crime novels. So, when you decide to sit and pause the leisurely walk, you have your book with you.

For more information, please visit the Chelsea in Bloom website.


Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 – reviews part 2

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced tomorrow, Wednesday 6 June. Back in April we reviewed some of the books that were on the longlist. So, ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, here are our thoughts on some of the other books that were on the longlist and three of the potential winners –

Elmet by Fiona Mozley 

I was really looking forward to reading this novel and I wasn’t disappointed.  From the beginning, Mozley draws you in with her writing and takes you into the world of Daniel, his sister Catherine and their father, Daddy, an enormous bare-knuckle fighter.  They build a house together on a hill in the woods of Elmet, the last independent Celtic kingdom, now known as West Riding.  The house is rough, bare and isolated from the outside world, both a hiding place and a vantage point.  It is warmed by open pit fires, cups of tea and homemade cider but also by the vulnerability and tenderness between the father and his children, particularly the Christmas scene.  There are historical scores to be settled, both personal and ancient, between the landowners and the people of the land and as the village comes together to fight for themselves, the outside world starts to intrude on the family’s home.  This is a dark and powerful novel that really stays with you.  It manages to be vivid, atmospheric and poetic while using very few, very well-chosen words.    I would definitely want to read whatever she writes next!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt 

Written in the days surrounding the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, this novel is not trying to recreate a crime investigation or assert the reality of what happened during those tense few days.  Instead it creates a hyper-reality where we are told the story through the first person narratives of the Borden sisters, Lizzie and Emma, the household maid Bridget and a Benjamin, a stranger employed by Lizzie and Emma’s uncle to watch over them.   Each voice is as engaging as the other, with all narrators having a motive for murder.  The book is intense and well-paced and brings to life the silences and rages of an emotionally claustrophobic house and the games and manipulations at play under the surface of middle-class, southern formality.  Well written and very atmospheric and engaging.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar 

Set in the 1780s when Deptford will still a shipyard surrounded by fields and Marylebone was only just being built, we meet Angelica, an extravagant and temperamental courtesan and Jonah Hancock, a merchant and widower.  Their lives are brought together with Jonah comes into possession of a mermaid that becomes the talk of London.  This novel is beautifully written.  It brings to life the wit and debauchery of the time without overdoing it, not easy given the exaggerated nature of the time.  Hermes Gowar also uses touches of authentic turns of phrase and details of cakes, décor and fashions of the time that really bring the novel to life.  This vivid novel is both hugely entertaining while managing to also be moving at the same time.  At one point I wondered if Angelica would ever be more than a vain and rather empty woman, but as the novel moves on, so do the characters, while also keeping them true to the time they are set in.  The novel explores themes of loss and longing, of freedom and captivity.  We see how women’s lives at that time were ultimately as the property of men, rather like the mermaid, but this is a novel of hope rather than despair.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

‘The Idiot’ is a coming of age tale that explores the nature of language. It is the story of Selin, who is nineteen, in her first year at Harvard university, learning Russian, teaching English and falling in love with Ivan, a Hungarian mathematics student.

I thought it was well written with some unforgettable sentences. You wander through the plot with Selin, never really going anywhere but it is an enjoyable and thought provoking journey. My favourite part was Selin’s take on the story she has to read for her Russian class. Anyone who has studied a foreign language will relate to its humour, but it also makes you question the limits of language and it provides a wonderful insight into Selin’s character.

When I Hit You: Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

This is the fictionalised version of the true story of Meena Kandasamy’s abusive marriage. It is unflinching and in parts an emotionally difficult read.

I was expecting it to be moving because of the subject matter, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so fantastically written. At the beginning we hear how others are telling the story of her marriage and by the end you feel like she has reclaimed her story for herself. She has even re-appropriated her abusive ex-husband’s words for the title of the book, giving herself back the power over them.

Sing, Unburied, Sing  by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of one Mississippi family, narrated by three main characters. Jojo is thirteen and finding his way in the world while trying to deal with his neglectful mother and his baby sister. Leonie, his mother, is struggling with a drug addiction and the ghosts of her past. Richie is the most ambiguous character out of the three and he introduces the element of magical realism into the novel.

I thought the family dynamic was portrayed very well, in all its difficulties and complexities.  It deals with the history of race relations in America and I found the stories of Parchman Prison particularly harrowing. It is a novel about histories, stories, memories and ghosts. Due to the rural setting, the novel feels timeless and there is a sense that the past is never that far away.

Fiona and Philippa, Brompton Library

Women in medicine

Female medical students currently outnumber their male counterparts in the UK. This is a situation that would have seemed incredible to the earliest female doctors.

In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first British woman to qualify to practice medicine. (The first woman, that is, since Dr James Barry, who though born female, lived her adult life as a man so that she could practice medicine from 1815, her secret only being discovered after her death.) Even with her qualification, Anderson was excluded from work in any hospital. She set up her own practice and launched a remarkable career in medical work, and in the furtherance of women in the profession and in wider society.

However, the battle for women to become doctors was very far from over. It is difficult for us to appreciate how strongly, and with what sometimes vicious misogyny, women’s entry into the profession was resisted well into the 20th century. A medical career was considered by the male establishment to be far too physically arduous and intellectually rigorous for any woman’s capabilities. All kinds of quasi-medical theories were propounded in support of this view – all the more bizarre when you consider that these were often expressed by highly educated men in the scientific community: they included the idea that too much study would cause a woman’s womb to atrophy.

These prejudices were enshrined in the regulations of the most important medical institutions. During the first half of the century, women were still barred from training at the major hospitals – with the sole exception of the Royal Free, where Garrett Anderson had established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. Although for some women, the shortage of men during the First World War around the time that they qualified provided a timely career-boost, allowing them access to institutions that were forced in desperation to admit them. Between the wars, it was still common for job advertisements in the British Medical Journal to specify that women need not apply.

In 1911, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Apparently unmoved by her achievements, Sir Henry Butlin, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, delivered a lecture in the same year in which he stated unequivocally that he believed women to be unsuited to medical research. An indication of how slow attitudes were to change is that 30 years later, in 1941, Sir Robert Hutchison, President of the Royal College of Physicians, told female medical students “medical women make excellent wives, while their qualification is always a second string to their bow.”

Against this background, the achievements of the early female doctors are all the more impressive, and we are pleased this month to be able to display fascinating biographies and memoirs of many of them (from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library), as well as those of contemporary women doctors writing about the stresses and joys of their chosen career.

We are also delighted to tell you about an exciting event linked to this display: on Monday 18 June, 6 to 7.30 pm here at Kensington Central Library, Dr Abby Waterman will be discussing her compelling memoir “Woman in a White Coat”. This is a wonderful read which describes with great humour and honesty her journey from an impoverished girlhood in the East End to a wide-ranging medical career.

You can book a free place to this event via Eventbrite 

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Inspirational female authors: Toni Morrison

To celebrate 2018 being the centenary of women’s right to vote, we are reviewing one book a month by an inspiring female author.

This month’s book is ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison, who was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

‘Beloved’ is set in America just after slavery was abolished. It is inspired by the supposedly true story of a woman who killed her child rather than have her taken back into slavery.  Sethe, a former slave, and her daughter Denver encounter a mysterious woman called Beloved. She comes to live with them and as they discover more about her they believe she is the ghost of the child Sethe murdered. ‘Beloved’ is about being haunted, struggling with identity and attempting to escape the past.

I think it is one of the most powerful books I’ve read. The way Toni Morrison contrasts the beauty of her language and the brutality she describes is very striking. This book stays with you long after you finish it.

The story is told through the flashbacks of several characters, which can make the plot difficult to follow at times but I think it is worth it for Morrison’s unique writing style.

If you have read ‘Beloved’ I’d recommend the other two books that were intended to be read as part of the same trilogy. The second book is ‘Jazz’ which is set in Harlem during the jazz age and has one of the most intense opening scenes. The third book is ‘Paradise’ which is about a brutal attack in a convent in 1970s America. None of the books feature the same characters, but they all deal with the same recurring themes.

See you in June for the next review.

Philippa, Brompton Library

ps – April’s review is here and March’s here


All about us

A post from our Service Development Manager, Angela Goreham – about what RBKC Libraries have to offer.

R Research for a project that interests you
B Booking a PC, a place at an event
K Knowledge as we all need this
C Connect (to others in the community and the wide world)

L Lending items for your pleasure or information
I Information that will help you with your day to day or forward planning
B Baby activities and information to help new parents
R Reading – a core skill and past time in any format
A Access us at any time and from anywhere
R Resources – varied and plentiful, in different formats to suit different needs
Y Young and old – we’re here for everyone

Are you 1 in 840,344? Or maybe you are 1 in 515,004? They’re odd numbers you might say, but the first one is the number of times the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s libraries were visited between April 2017 and March 2018 and the second is how many items were borrowed during the same period – how many did you account for?

104 people from our local communities supported the Library Service by volunteering with us and over 40,000 people came to one of the events that we held.

They are huge numbers but we always want to beat our previous year’s figures so please come along to one of our libraries, find out what we can do for you and you can help us pass last year’s numbers.

There are six libraries within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – find out more about them and what we offer by either visiting us in person or our website or you can call us on 020 7361 3010.

Book Break reading groups in Kensington and Chelsea

This is guest blog post from Liz Ison. She works for The Reader and looks after the Book Break reading groups that run in Kensington and Chelsea . Over to Liz to tell us more…

Do you love stories, poems and great literature?

Would you like to find out what shared reading is?

Did you know that there are many shared reading groups going on in your local neighbourhood running every week?

Meet The Reader, an organisation that is passionate about the power of reading together.
We at The Reader are the pioneers of Shared Reading. The volunteer Reader Leaders who run our weekly groups, bring people together to read great literature aloud.

Groups are open to all, readers and non-readers alike. Come along and listen to stories and poems read aloud. It’s an opportunity to read and talk together in a friendly and relaxing environment. Free refreshments provided!

Our shared reading groups have been running locally for many years bringing shared reading to the residents of Kensington and Chelsea. We work in libraries, community centres and other organisations spreading the joy of shared reading.

Here are what our group members have to say about shared reading:

“I’ve felt really happy since the session with you —bought myself some flowers the next day…and went for a long walk while listening to music— all in one day. Our happy thoughts trigger happy chemicals in our brain.” Aysha

“An anchor during the week”

“It always makes me feel more fulfilled than the other days”

  • 95 % look forward to the group as an important event in the week
  • 84% think the reading session makes them feel better*

Here are some groups to try in our local libraries:

Brompton Library – Tuesday, 10.30am to 12 noon
Chelsea Library – Tuesday, 2.30 to 4pm
Kensington Central Library – Tuesday, 2 to 4pm
North Kensington Library – Thursday, 3 to 5pm
North Kensington Library – Saturday, 10.30am to 12 noon

We look forward to welcoming you to a group soon. To find other shared reading groups in your area you can contact:

Erin at or call 07483 972 020

Liz at or call 07807 106 815

More information is on the The Reader website too.

And if you’d be interested in volunteering with us, get in touch!


* 2017 Reader evaluation data for Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea shared reading groups

Boom! Free Comic Book Day arrives once again…

Free Comic Book Day is an international celebration of all things comics – taking place on the first Saturday in May, it is a day where new titles are released and shops offer a giveaway of free issues – our libraries are taking part, courtesy of those lovely folks at Forbidden Planet

The day is perfect for both collector fanatics and those who are picking up a comic for the first time.

Kensal Library will be hosting a special event on the day – make your very own superhero mask. This will be at 3 to 4pm and it’s a free event for children of all ages.

Explore all this and more at one of our libraries and don’t forget to ask staff for your free comic book. We have three titles to give out, while stocks last – head on in before missing out. You’ll discover characters from the DC Universe including Superhero girls, Doctor Who, plus look out for the exclusive DC Nation!

Why not also check out the graphic novel selection? or the new release DVDs available while you are there and see what else your local Kensington and Chelsea library has to offer?