SL’s Managing Lifestyle Editor Shares Her Favourite Books
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Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes
At the start of last year, I made it my mission to read every Marian Keyes book. With the release of this year’s Again, Rachel – Keyes’s follow-up to her most famous novel, Rachel’s Holiday – the total came in at 18. As this year draws to a close, there’s just one more I need to track down (her 2008 book This Charming Man) and I’ve loved them all. Where should you begin if you’ve not ready any of her hard-hitting yet hilarious stories? The 1.5 million-copy bestseller Rachel’s Holiday turns 25 this year and is truly brilliant, tackling addiction and rehab with wit and genuinely lovable characters. I also loved Grown Ups – so much so, I raced through almost 700 pages in under two days. A heartening, pacey read, it follows the lives of the Johnny Casey, his two brothers Ed and Liam, their beautiful, talented wives and all their kids. They’re a happy family, but under the surface, conditions are murkier. While some people clash, others like each other a little too much. Everything stays under control until Ed’s wife, Cara, gets concussion and starts revealing secrets one by one. If you need a hit of 90s nostalgia, I have a huge soft spot for Last Chance Saloon – which came out in 1999 and follows three friends who enter their 30s with nothing to show for spending their 20s partying in London, stuck in useless relationships. If you’re looking for a fun read that isn’t afraid to focus on hard-hitting topics, Keyes is your woman.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When I first started reading this, SL Editor Charlotte told me: “It’s the best book I’ve ever read, and I never want to read it again.” Closing the book at the end, I could see her point. A devastating read, Hanya Yanagihara’s million-copy bestseller had me crying for three weekends straight, but is hands-down one of the most life-changing reading experiences I’ve had. The story focuses on four graduates from a small Massachusetts college, who move to New York to make their way – skint, adrift and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, touched by addiction, success and pride. Yet their greatest challenge is Jude himself, by midlife a talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood and haunted by a trauma that will define his life forever. I say I’m hesitant to put myself through reading the book again, but then I’ve booked tickets to see the long-awaited West End adaptation next year, so am gearing myself up to relive the intense sense of loss all over again.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s excellent first novel turned 30 this year – and has a celebratory new cover to mark the occasion – but its characters’ struggles and complex personalities are timeless. I read the whole thing – all 640 pages – in one weekend a few months ago and could not put it down. Set in New England, The Secret History tells the story of a close-knit group of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite Vermont college based on Bennington College, where Tartt was a student from 1982-86. Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, Julian, the group of clever, eccentric misfits discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and forever. The novel is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next. A modern classic for a reason, this bestseller is both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful. Her Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch is next on my list.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
In the last couple of years, I’ve been reading more contemporary American female authors, and after spending a lot of my 20s hooked on the novels of Brett Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniak and Kurt Vonnegut, I’ve loved exploring a wider selection of US writers. Up there for me is Elizabeth Strout, who won Pulitzer Prizes for both Olive Kitteridge (which is also a great HBO series starring Frances McDormand) and My Name is Lucy Barton. Strout’s newest works revisit some of her most loved characters: Olive, Again follows the blunt, contradictory yet deeply loveable Olive Kitteridge as she grows older, navigating the second half of her life and coming to terms with changes – some welcome, some not – to her own existence and in those around her; and in Oh William!, Lucy Barton has become a widow and parent to two adult daughters. A surprise encounter leads her to reconnect with William, her first husband. Recalling their college years, the birth of their daughters, the painful dissolution of their marriage, and the lives they built with other people, Strout weaves a portrait of a tender, complex, decades-long partnership. I’ve also read lots of Ann Patchett. I love political drama Bel Canto, but my favourite of hers is The Dutch House, where grown up siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy are drawn back time to their old family home. Behind the mystery of their own exile from The Dutch House is the exile of their mother, whose absence more powerful than any presence they have known.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
Sir Phillip Pullman is one of the UK’s greatest living writers, and his His Dark Materials fantasy series has been a favourite of mine since Northern Lights was published in the late 90s. I re-read the original trilogy just before Pullman published La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One – set a decade before readers were introduced to Lyra and Will – and the books completely held up as an adult. In 2019’s The Secret Commonwealth, readers catch up with 20-year-old Lyra as she and her dæmon Pantalaimon navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, as they are drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world they had no idea existed. I can’t wait for the third volume to be published – I’m keeping everything crossed it’s still on track for next year.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
If you listen to the SheerLuxe podcast, you’ll have heard me talk about Richard Powers’s literary love letter to trees (bear with me). I meant to read this after Bryony Gordon recommended it several times when I interviewed her for My Life In Books. But it was only when I visited legendary Portland bookstore Powell’s this summer that I bought it, as much of the story is set in the Pacific Northwest. In The Overstory, nine strangers become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. The story unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable, ranging from antebellum New York to the late 20th-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, revealing a slow and vast world alongside our own. It’s the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world, and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. It’s extremely readable, moving and powerful in the way it’s made me think differently about the importance of nature and conservation.
Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
No novel in recent memory has spoken more movingly to readers about the nature of love than André Aciman’s haunting Call Me by Your Name. The story is perhaps now best known for its Oscar-winning adaptation starring Timothée Chalamet as the young Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver, the graduate student he falls in love with. A sun-soaked love story that will have you craving a summer in Italy, this is the perfect winter read. Alongside Call Me By Your Name, I loved Find Me, Aciman’s recent follow-up that shows readers Elio’s father, Samuel, on a trip from Florence to Rome to visit Elio, who has become a gifted classical pianist. A chance encounter on the train with a beautiful young woman upends Samuel’s plans and changes his life forever. Elio soon moves to Paris, where he too has a consequential affair; while Oliver, now a New England college professor with a family, finds himself contemplating a return trip across the Atlantic.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing. In her most famous work, American Wife, she reimagines the life of Laura Bush, the wife of US president George W. Bush. Quiet, bookish Alice Blackwell never dreamed of being First Lady – much less to a president whose politics she doesn’t believe in. On perhaps the most important day of her husband’s presidency, Alice looks back on the strange and unlikely path that led her to the White House, and to a decision – both treacherous and long overdue – that could jeopardise everything. It’s a remarkable portrait of a woman caught between her feelings for her husband, her country and herself. In Sittenfeld’s newest book, Rodham, Hillary Clinton gets a similar treatment as the author tells the story of what could have happened if Hillary didn’t marry Bill. Following their break-up, she spends four decades blazing her own trail – one that unfolds in public as well as in private and involves crossing paths again (and again) with Bill. Her forthcoming book, Romantic Comedy, is one of my most anticipated for 2023.
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
I always enjoy a book that tells the story from multiple perspectives – especially if an unreliable narrator is involved – and there have been lots of good ones published recently. In former HBO head of drama Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut, we meet Elle Bishop, who is spending her summer at the ‘Paper Palace’, a gently decaying summer camp in the back woods of Cape Cod where her family has spent every summer for generations. As she dives beneath the surface of a pond, a shocking memory of the sudden passionate encounter she had the night before rears its head – and so begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and across 50 years, as decades of family legacies, love, lies, secrets and one unspeakable incident in her childhood lead Elle to the precipice of a life-changing decision. Another I loved is Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – and there’s an upcoming HBO adaptation to look forward to as well. Recently divorced 41-year-old Toby Fleishman dives into the brave new world of app-based dating with the kind of success he never had before he got married. But just at the start of his first summer of sexual freedom, his ex-wife Rachel disappears, leaving him with 11-year-old Hannah and nine-year-old Solly, and no hint of where she is or whether she plans to return. As he balances parenting, the return of old friends, a potential promotion at the hospital and all the eligible women that Manhattan has to offer, he realises he’ll never be able to figure out what happened to Rachel until he can finally face what happened to their marriage in the first place. Finally, a shout out to The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Weaving between past and present, the novel portrays the delights and difficulties of family life and the endlessly complex mixture of affection and abhorrence we feel for those closest to us. A lovely, long read that will keep you gripped as the tale weaves between decades and voices.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I’m a massive Murakami fan and love the way he weaves the superstitious and mythic into the mundanity of real life. The first of his books I read was Kafka on the Shore, but Norwegian Wood was the one that reeled me in. When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately, he is transported back almost 20 years to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire – to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past. I’ve read quite a lot of Japanese literature and Kazuo Ishiguro is another favourite author of mine. I love The Remains of the Day (which became a great film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and Never Let Me Go, where he imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewed version of contemporary England. Narrated by 31-year-old Kathy, the book – and its excellent adaptation starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield – dramatizes her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School and the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. His most recent work, Klara & The Sun, also mixes subtle sci-fi with compelling characters, and I thought it was brilliant. Of Japan’s more contemporary authors, I really enjoyed both Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings by Sayaka Murata and There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, award-winning author Kikuko Tsumura’s first book to be translated into English.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
When it comes to the classics, I’ve always preferred a gloomy gothic novel over the likes of Jane Austen. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a tale of impossible desires, violence and transgression, and one I loved so much growing up, that reading it again conjures up great memories of school (and not just because me and my friends were obsessed with Kate Bush). As well as the central relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw – and her betrayal of him and the bitter vengeance he wreaks on the innocent heirs – I love the eyebrow-raising retelling by both Nelly and Mr Lockwood. Other classics I love are Dracula, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Rebecca and Angela Carter’s modern classic The Bloody Chamber – all eerily ideal books to hunker down with at this time of year.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
I’d much rather get lost in a novel over non-fiction, mostly because I prefer to watch a documentary if a real-life subject or person fascinates me. There are a couple of exceptions, of course – books about food and those about music (see below). One of the best on the former is the late Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, which he published in 2000. Whenever I book a trip abroad, I’ll check to see if Bourdain visited for one of his travelogues and, if so, will always take his tips on board. The book recalls 25 years of “sex, drugs, bad behaviour and haute cuisine”. From his first oyster in the Gironde to working his way up from a dishwasher in Provincetown to top chef at the Rainbow Room atop the Rockefeller Center, Bourdain's kitchen tales are passionate, unpredictable, shocking and funny. Other food books I recommend are restaurant critic Grace Dent’s Hungry, the late AA Gill’s musings on addiction and recovery in Pour Me and food-obsessive Stanley Tucci’s Taste.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
I’m not a Nick Hornby obsessive, but High Fidelity is both hilarious and heart-breaking and I love it (and the resulting John Cusack/Jack Black film). List fanatic Rob owns a record store and is constantly compiling mixtapes and liner notes about periods of his life, especially in relation to women he’s loved and lost. The latest ex is Laura, and while he convinces himself he’s over her, he sets about exploring his past lists and loves in a bid to work out why he always ends up alone. Cider With Roadies by Stuart Maconie and Kill Your Friends by John Niven are both humorous yet honest books about the music industry that I devoured at an early age and loved; Kim Gordon, Viv Albertine and Patti Smith’s recent biographies have all been both eye-opening and entertaining, while Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan’s Faith, Hope & Carnage and Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family & The Miracle of Failure are two of the best books I’ve read this year, in particular the latter, where self-deprecating lead singer Lias Saoudi and writer Adelle Stripe dissect the highs and lows of being a British band today with eye-watering honesty and explosive humour.
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