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Jess Phillips on her Favourite Books

Posted on 13th September 2019 by Mark Skinner

As Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips has become one of the most recognisable politicians in the land. Her refreshing honesty and refusal to be cowed by those who would seek to undermine her has led her to amass the kind of popularity unusual for an elected representative. In her combative book Truth to Power, Jess offers a blistering manifesto for the wider public on how to call out those who try to bully, cheat and lie their way through life at the the expense of others.

To celebrate the publication of Truth to Power, we asked Jess to name her favourite books. From comic masterpieces to landmark biography, these are her choices. 

Wild Swans by Jung Chang 

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A landmark work of life writing, Wild Swans was hailed as a classic upon publication and its reputation has only grown in the intervening decades. For many in the West, Chang’s account of three generations of Chinese women through the tumult of the twentieth century was the first true insight they had into a closed, exotic culture.
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I read this book when I was 19 years old, sleeping in a tent while working in France. I think it may be the first non-fiction book I ever read (except at school) and I devoured it. The representation of the role and the lives of women during the wars in China and the cultural revolution was something I knew nothing about. The generations of women and how their society, history and politics had felt for them was like nothing I had read before or, frankly, since. 

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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One of the more playful foundational texts of fourth wave feminism, How to be a Woman discusses taboo subjects with a wit and candour that is as revolutionary as it is hilarious. Ranging from botox to motherhood and all points in between, Moran’s dazzling humour and sharp intelligence pours off the page.
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As a woman from a large rough and ready family in the Midlands when I read Caitlin’s book, for the first time ever I felt as if it was a book written for people like me. The idea that a woman could be so honest about her sexuality and her hopes and dreams and what our lives are really like. I found it thrilling. 

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole age 13 and 3/4 by Sue Townsend 

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Townsend’s comic masterpiece rests on immaculate characterisation, wry observation and genuine compassion. The tortured journal of a precious teenager whose genius remains woefully unacknowledged, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ has become a true national treasure.
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I have read this book, every year for the past 20 years, it sits on my bedside table and when I cannot sleep I turn to the eyerolling dialogue of Pauline Mole, Adrian’s mother. It is so funny, so accurate, so brilliantly mundane. Pitch perfect on every page. It allows working class people with messy lives to still be clever, funny, politically engaged. They are not monstered, each and every character is perfect. 

Peepo by Janet and Allan Ahlberg 

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Perfect for banishing bedtime blues, the Ahlbergs’ die-cut marvel relays wartime Britain through the eyes of an inquisitive baby. Conceptually sophisticated and immensely charming, Peepo continues to be adored by generations of small children.
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My parents read this to me as a child and I read it to my children, I can recite it from memory. I knew I was pregnant with my second son, when reading Peepo to my first born I started to sob at the part where his dad leaves the house in his soldier's uniform. I had read it a million times and knew that my emotions must have been for something else. It is so brilliant that the words and pictures work to tell a story of a time that, while set in a certain time, is totally timeless.

The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe 

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Utterly hilarious and deeply affecting, Coe’s paean to the pop culture and politics of 1970s Birmingham revels in keenly drawn characterisation and nimble, witty prose. The story of a group of teenagers attempting to navigate their way through the vicissitudes of the decade, The Rotters’ Club is an endlessly rewarding literary treat.
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This book is written about a group of kids from Birmingham who went to the school I went to, it is steeped in Birmingham history and the sights and sounds of my home town. I read it on a coach in Australia and missed home.

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