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Wednesday 30 July 2014

Shelf Esteem's Must-Read Books

Extremely suitably, I have ended up in the most lady writerly scene possible for writing my last Shelf Esteem column. I'm at home at Twee Flat, sitting in the armchair my mum reupholstered for me in red cord when I moved in.

Candles are lit (including, obviously, my eternally beloved Melt STILL) and Cat Brown is purring away on my lap. Outside, the sun is setting in vivid pink candystripes, and my elderly neighbour is having a minor argument with her other half about where she last saw the green spade.


*A pause to push Cat Brown off the keyboard*

Shelf Esteem's Greatest Hits

My favourite books from the top-rated reviews: these are the ones I would press on you at a party, while looking slightly wild-eyed and upsetting. The Goldfinch not included because you've most likely already read it, despite its inordinate size.

Click on each link for the full review, and to buy it.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (4/5)
A beautiful story of friendship and life in the American country - which means Big Country, not just "Ooh I got the train to Guildford and wandered around for a bit." It starts off small, but before you know it it's unravelled some stunning writing and slapped you round the face.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (5/5)
Oh God was I sniffy before starting this. Eat Pray Love woman? Weird aged aunt-looking cover? Thank heavens I even opened the damn thing because this is just a treasure of terrific story, beautiful language and frantic, cupboard love of the most literal kind.

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood (4/5)
Ernest Hemingway was a ghastly, ghastly man, but his wives and mistresses were incredible. Wood does a brilliant job of linking them all together without making the reader want to jump out of the window at the sheer heartbreak of it all, and in return you get a fantastic and evocative read that sizzles with poetry and summer tension.

Campari For Breakfast by Sara Crowe (4/5)
A ridiculously charming tale that ticked all my favourite coming of age boxes: eccentric relatives, a yearning for romance, the threat of eviction, and all nicely roasted in wit, lovely plotting and a healthy measure of gin.

Tinder by Sally Gardner (5/5)
I adore fairy tales and anything magical, not because I am five but because the imagery you get is so stunning. Sally Gardner's poetic, almost violent narrative takes a Hans Christian Andersen classic and together with David Roberts' staggering artwork makes for a book that whisks you firmly into another, colder world until you've finished.

Shelf Esteem's Summer Picks

I spent last week on holiday greedily ingesting all the books I'd been saving up for such an occasion - the good thing about being a borderline albino redhead: nobody looks at you askance when you hide indoors. These are my favourite new titles - 5/5 each one - while the Sluttery team picks their favourites to read on holiday.
 The Vacationers by Emma Straub
If you read enough really good books you get fooled into thinking it's easy to come up with believable characters, plot and location. It only took two nearly-there books for me to fall upon Straub's with grateful relish: in this story of a restless American family holidaying in Mallorca (very funny on that choice she is too) with friends, she nails all three. I really hoped this would be amazing, and it really is.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R.Carey
Melanie is a young girl like any other, she thinks. It is a bit odd that she has to be strapped into a wheelchair under military supervision in order to attend her school lessons, but the beneficent light of her favourite teacher Miss Justineau is distraction enough for the moment. That's all you get from me, but this was my favourite book of the holiday. Carey is a comics writer, and puts that medium's tight, active writing into an always engaging story that keeps your attention laser-focused, even during action bits when if you're anything like me, you start checking your watch and going "Oh is this still going is it?"

The Wrong Knickers: A Decade of Chaos by Bryony Gordon
Dreadful cover, and an "Oh, Bridget!" title do this thoughtful, emotional and hilarious memoir a disservice. Less wacky than Gordon's columns can tend to be, this is an unflinchingly unselfpitying look at your 20s, when you don't know enough not to believe everything you're told, and are too poor or pissed to do anything about it. I cried at the end, laughed all the way through, and thanked God my 20s are done with.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I put off reading this for ages because I got so fed up at the publicity department shrieking details about the plot on Twitter. Do not do this! Pick it up now, because this is one of the most enjoyable, captivating books I've read in ages, and the lead character, Rose, one of the most intriguing. The sort of book that reminds you why you love to read.
Laura H: I'm currently reading The Whispering Muse by Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, and am tremendously excited about it! Set in 1949 aboard a ship bound for the Black Sea, it is filled with witty humour and sudden bursts of raw myth; the second mate is in fact a hero from Greek epic poetry who once sailed with Jason and the Argonauts. If that doesn't get you excited then I don't know what will.

Other than that, I've just finished Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Overtly it's a nostalgic contemplation of life as a 12 year-old boy in late 1920s small-town America; but it's much more than that. Beneath the surface is a contemplation of the nature of time, youth, memory, written in truly wonderful prose. Aptly, the whole book feels somehow seeped in golden light and summer darkness. Great for a late night read on a balcony somewhere.

Next up will be David Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks - I'm a huge Mitchell fan so I can't wait!

Laura B: I've reread Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse more often than I can remember. It's scandalous and amoral - both excellent ingredients for a summer read - and set on the scorching-hot French Riviera. While reading, it's worth remembering three things: firstly, that Sagan was 18 when she wrote this. Secondly, that it earned her a papal denunciation. And thirdly, that it was far too daring for the UK in 1954, and the juicy bits were squeezed out of early editions. Don't worry - this recent translation cuts NOTHING.

Katie: Earlier this year I went to see the theatrical interpretation of Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales at Shoreditch Town Hall. It was really wonderful, and made me go home and pick up Pullman's book, which is a great read, and particularly good at reminding you quite how grim the original stories were!

Another vote for Tinder by Sally Gardner: although based on a fairytale, this one is definitely not for kids. Gardner was apparently heartbroken that being a grown-up meant reading books without pictures, so this one is accompanied by appropriately haunting illustrations.

I also recently finished Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane which was utterly transporting. My only complaint was that it was too short. Reading on a Kindle I often forget to check how far through I am, and with this one I was expecting to only be about half way through when it came to an end! Gutted.

Frances: I have a habit of taking the gloomiest books on holiday with me and creating my own little salty tears pool next to the sun lounger. If you like that sort of thing too, I really recommend some Suri Hustvedt - the worlds she creates are incredible, although perhaps not that compatible with Pina coladas and the Macarena.

For complete escapism, I'm totally with Kat and Miss Pettigrew. Other books along that delightful line are Mrs Harris goes to Paris, a London char lady saves up her pennies to buy the Dior dress of her dreams in Paris and all sorts of wonders unfold, and the gorgeous The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, a book for "those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine". If this book doesn't make you want to skip off to Italy and get lost amidst fig and olive trees, well frankly you probably deserve a wet weekend in Skeggy for your holidays. And always, always, I Capture The Castle.

Sian: Alongside The Signature of all Things (which Kat will no doubt mention as she reviewed it and loved it) I can't think of a better summer read than American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield. It's a book to get totally lost in while sipping a ridiculous drink on a beach. If you're after a shorter read, try The Other Typist, which certainly isn't your average romp through 20s New York. It's perfect reading material for a long train journey. And obviously I can't ignore my all time favourite book The Poisonwood Bible. I'm so excited to read that again this summer.

Kat's last word, because she is getting totes emosh

And there we have it. I can't believe it's the last Shelf Esteem! On the one hand, I am full of regret over the books we won't get to discuss. On the other, thrilled because there are so many wonderful books still to come, and ones to re-read. Speaking of which...

Kat's favourite books

I can read these endlessly and always be comforted, inspired and find something new.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
Rivals by Jilly Cooper
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Love and Rockets by Jaime Hernandez
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
A Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot
The Kingdom Under The Sea by Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski
She by H Rider Haggard

I would love it if you would share your own favourites in the comments, or by tweeting me @katbrown82. Thank you for reading, and I wish you many more happy book times yet to come.


  1. Thanks a lot you guys, way to make me weep on a Wednesday afternoon! I cannot believe this is the last shelf esteem - I've picked up so many great reads from this column (although I won't forgive you for the Luminaries...).

    Thanks again from me for all the journeys, but not from my bookshelves which are grumbling under the weight.

    Oh, and Kat, I'm totally with you on Jilly Cooper's Rivals! I love all her books, but I have SUCH a soft spot for that one and all the brilliant characters (Caitlin! Taggie! Cameron! Tabitha! Patrick! RCB in the ass's head!!!)

    1. YES! Rivals is JUST the best - 30 happy days *cries*! The Merry Widow! Maud's "cheddar gorge" of cleavage! Taggie and Rupert and happily ever after. Cameron and Fracas. My very favourite of all. Thank you for such lovely words (and Luminaries - I've got 1% through that on Kindle and don't foresee going much further) xx

    2. I wish e-readers let you make playlists, like Spotify. So I could download all of Kat's favourite books in one go.

      This entire piece is going to be my reading for the rest of the year. I'm really very excited.

  2. Dear Kat, I too have read so many books recommended by shelf esteem that I might not otherwise have read, my highlights....
    Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (okay, I'd read this one anyway but it's still brilliant!)
    Dominion by CJ Sansom - gripping and I also discovered his 'Shardlake' series and I love a bit of Tudor mystery being a massive fan of Hilary Mantels 'Wolf Hall' & 'Bring Up the Bodies'
    The Quick by Lauren Owen - a book I never ever would have read but I trusted your judgement and wow was it good!
    So thank you, thank you and thank you again for vastly improving my commute xx

  3. I'm so thrilled you loved The Quick, Penny - Life After Life is TOTALLY brilliant too - gosh that woman's clever - and I can't wait to read Dominion which was a Sian number. Sian's recommendations are completely essential.

    1. I still haven't read The Quick! I must. Loved Dominion. So pleased you've enjoyed all of the books we've recommended.

  4. Have enjoyed many of the recommendations on here, so hopefully some of you will in turn enjoy some of my favourites:
    The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (it's what Pan's Labyrinth would be if it were a book about a boy rather than a film about a girl, if that makes sense?)
    Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson just pips her debut Behind The Scenes At The Museum for me - I know the whole world seems to be crazy for her Brodie books but for me her earlier works are just exquisitely written - multi-layered, and populated by such well realised characters. And if you read them all you can spot the little narrative breadcrumbs between the different novels.
    Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman - a book of brilliant short stories, including my favourite ever piece of writing, Instructions (actually I need this written on a tiny scroll so that I can keep it with me always - I would then be impervious to almost all enchantments...probably)
    Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas - I feel like this choice might make people yawn, but honestly the rolling, leaping, exuberant, perfect words are just extraordinary and sublime
    Perdido Street Station by China Mieville - a meticulously realised and very alien yet believable world
    the Otherland novels of Tad Williams - a set of four really rather chunky books which astonishingly don't seem to be a single word too long!
    Um, I might have to add more later...this may come as a shock but I'm a major book geek, Jo :-)

    1. You made me pick up Fragile Things again last night because of this Jo - wonderful list and loads new for me, thank you! Flipping love Dylan Thomas. Once it was the colour of saying is probably my favourite poem.

  5. I've loved pretty much everything you've recommended in Shelf Esteem. In fact you've become my go to place for consistently good book recommendations. I work part time in a bookshop and have passed on your wisdomosity and excellent taste to many. Not sure what I'm going to do now. I'm strangely bereft. In terms of my recommendations, Almost English is von der full. The new Sarah Waters is a joy. Also, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mariana.

    1. Thank you for the lovely words Claire, and the recommendations! That's brilliant. I can't wait for the SW. But more importantly - Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. WHAT? Best title ever!

    2. Thanks Claire! Also back up the Our Spoons Came From Woolworths recommendation: it's a great book, as well as a great title!

    3. That's a great title. Buying it on that alone.

  6. Kat,can I add Eleanor and Park to my recommendations, please? I downloaded it after you recommended it and I can't stop thinking about it. I'm only about a third of the way through (they're holding hands). It's making my heart soar.

    1. CLEARLY! Oh Rainbow Rowell. I read Landline on holiday too, she's a very funny lady.

  7. I suggested Mrs Hemingway as a book club book following your recommendation Kat and, a rare occurrence, everyone really liked it (the book, but not Ernest). Thanks for the recommendation and for letting me hold my head up high in book club stakes.

    1. Along with E&P is downloaded this on your insistence. My ereader is basically sponsored by Kat Brown.

    2. I started it very late last night! It's already amazing and I'm only two chapters in.

  8. I will miss your book recommendations so much! I have loved so many books you've recommended. The Paris Wife, Play it as it Lays, not to mention getting totally hooked on Lindsay Buroker's Emperor's Edge series. I lost weeks to that and I regret nothing!

    I really hope you all go on to do more amazing things, and I really hope if it's more book reviews I can find you again.

    As for my favourite book that I will always go back to - In the Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. So lovely, so funny, and I never fail to cry like a baby at the end (I'm welling up now, just thinking about it)


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