Monday, 26 August 2013


It's six months since I started my books column for Harpers Bazaar and in that time, I've read A LOT of books. (More, if anything, than I read judging last year's Costa Novel award). Here's my pick of the best so far...

1. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

One of the first books I read this year and, so far, still one of the best. The Groundhog Day-esque story of Ursula Todd, a child born on 11 February 1910. And born again. And again. And again. Each rebirth taking a different course until she gets it right. Or, more, until she gains the courage and the self-knowledge to fulfil her destiny. Once you get over the initial repetition of the baby years, Ursula’s story takes various paths that are by turn visceral and shocking. I guarantee Ursula will linger in your head long after you have turned the last page (and probably turned it back again, a little frustrated…) 

2. The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (Harpercollins)

Having won the Arthur C Clarke science fiction award for her second novel, Zoo City, South African Beukes takes the concept popularised by The Time Traveller's Wife and turns it inside out. Harper Curtis is a serial killer who travels between the 1920s and the present day in search of the shining girls whose light he is compelled to snuff out. Kirby Mazrachi is the one that got away. Beautifully written, skilfully plotted, entirely original, this was Stephen King's beach read and I can see why.

3. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer (Chatto & Windus)

What makes one person succeed where another, seemingly just as talented, fails? That's the question Wolitzer (acclaimed author of The Wife) sets out to answer in her ninth novel. The Interestings of the title are an ironically self-named group of creatively inclined teenagers at summer camp in 1974. The novel follows the friends back and forth over the next forty years. Wannabe actress Jules fails and retrains as a therapist, golden boy Goodman crashes and burns, while Ethan, the boy least likely to, cleans up. But why? And how much envy and disappointment can a friendship stand? Wolitzer has some rather compelling answers.

4. Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell (Virago)

A biography of a book more than a person, academic and Fitzgerald scholar, Churchwell analyses the gestation of The Great Gatsby to produce an insightful, engrossing and sometimes shocking portrait of a year: 1922, The year in which Gatsby was written. And a place: prohibition era New York City. And none of it is as it seems. An unexpectedly engrossing read, not just for Gatsby obsessives.

5. The Last Banquet, Jonathan Grimwood (Canongate)

From the moment I first encountered four-year-old Jean-Marie d'Aumout (over Jon's shoulder in Caffe Nero where he was writing this book), I was obsessed by this sensuous tale of one man's search for the perfect taste. This affecting journey takes d'Aumout from dung heap to Versailles as he mingles with the great, the good and the utterly corrupt in an 18th century France heading inexorably towards revolution. 

6. Firefly, Janette Jenkins (Chatto & Windus)

From his Jamaican mountain retreat of the title, an ailing, cantankerous 71-year-old Noel Coward looks out over the bay and his life. It is a long hot summer in the early seventies and wistful memories of the glamorous friends of his long-gone London years intermingle with the implausible fantasy city that lives in his manservant Patrice's dreams of becoming a waiter at the Ritz. Just add a cocktail and I can think of no better poolside companion than this pitch-perfect reimagining of a regret-tinged twilight of Coward's life.

7. How To Be a Good Wife, Emma Chapman (Picador)

Marta and Hector have been married a long time. How long, Marta is not sure, she struggles to remember her life before Hector. But she knows it's a long time and she knows she loves Hector because he tells her so. She also knows that since their son left home, things have started to go awry. And, Marta feels sure, she's starting to remember. Cue a slight (in the best possible sense), dark and utterly bleak debut novel that will have you returning to the first page as soon as you finish.

8. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter (Penguin)

There's a reason this book spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists: it is quite simply the ultimate brainy beach read. Split between sixties Rome as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor embark on their infamously tempestuous affair and contemporary Hollywood, it examines the birth of celebrity with the lightest of touches. 

And four that slipped through the cracks...

The Son, Philip Meyer (Simon & Schuster) - a multi-generational American epic that's been described as The Wire meets One Hundred Years of Solitude...  The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (Harvill Secker) - Kushner's critically acclaimed novel set between the 70s New York art scene and an Italy in the midst of revolution... Burial Rites, Hannah Kent (Picador) - This eerie debut reimagines the true story of a convicted murderer sent to await execution in an Icelandic village in 1829... Things We Need, Jennifer Close (Vintage) - the author of the undersung Girls in White Dresses turns her attention to family, and what happens when we 'go home'.

See all my Bazaar on Books blogs at


  1. Love these recommendations - should get me through the Autumn months. Particularly excited to read Life After Life. Currently working my way through all the Jackson Brodie novels

  2. It doesn't bear a lot of similarity to the Jackson Brodies... A bit more in common with Behind The Scenes At The Museum.

  3. They all look so good. Bit nervous about the scarier ones as get too drawn in & get wacky dreams (such a wimp). Hoping to recommend Last Banquet when it's my turn at bookclub soon (usually held in Surbiton oh the suburban cliche!) Think I will start with Beautiful Ruins or Life After Life tomorrow

  4. I'm intrigued by The Shining Girls... I had always assumed it was about the twins from the Overlook hotel, but apparently not. May have to give it a go x