Authors’ Best Loved Books

August 9th is National Book Lover’s Day – to celebrate, I had a look at the books most frequently chosen by authors at The Books That Built me so that I could compile a list of authors’ favourite authors – the top five are below

  1. Nancy Mitford
  2. Leo Tolstoy
  3. Virginia Woolf
  4. George Eliot
  5. Evelyn Waugh




The Books That Built Me Reading Group: Mrs Bridge, Evan S Connell


I’m delighted to have teamed up with Waterstones High Street Kensington to create a The Books That Built Me reading group.

On Wednesday 17th August 6.30pm, we’ll be talking about one of Lionel Shriver’s favourite books: Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell. I hadn’t heard of Mrs Bridge before Lionel sent me her book choices, but it’s a captivating, original read that stays with you long after you’ve closed the final page.

“Her first name was India. She was never able to get used to it.”

So begins Mrs Bridge, a novel in which nothing and yet everything happens. First published in 1959, Connell’s hugely successful novel tells the story of an unremarkable upper middle-class housewife in Kansas City between the first and second world wars. Mrs Bridge has three children, a comfortable home, a kindly – if distant – lawyer husband and spends her time shopping, going to bridge parties and bringing her children up to have nice manners. She has expensive hand towels which she puts out when visitors come but secretly hopes they won’t use, and she has never met a socialist. Her world is delightfully and sensitively observed: Mrs Bridge has everything a woman of her class and time could wish for, yet we sense the quiet tragedy of a life that’s not quite fulfilled.

Chosen by Lionel Shriver as one of the books that built her as a writer, Shriver admires Connell’s modesty, his determination to take himself out of his work, so that the reader can ‘see through the novel straight to the character. That kind of clear-sightedness, that not getting in the way, of not saying ‘look at me, isn’t that a great sentence’, I really admire that.’

Copies of Mrs Bridge are easily available at Waterstones High Street Kensington (and other Waterstones). The latest edition is published by Vintage and has an excellent introduction.

TIME TO READ:  Mrs Bridge is a rewarding read and one of those rare books that’s easy to pick up and read in short bursts – on the tube or at bedtime, for example. It’s written in 117 vignettes, each of which is a complete story in itself (it’s a bit like a blog in that respect) and I finished it in a weekend. I am rather a fast reader, but even read at a much steadier pace, I don’t think it’ll take more than a fortnight of dipping in and out.

If you’d like to chat about Mrs Bridge in the run up to the reading group, please post on the facebook page in the comments under this post.

This is a free event, but please email me on to let me know you are coming so that I make sure there is enough wine for all.

Summer reads: Novels about paintings

The Muse, Jessie Burton

Fans of Jessie Burton’s smash-hit debut, The Miniaturist, will love her second novel, The Muse. Set between sixties London and civil-war Spain, The Muse tells the story of four women and the lost masterpiece with a secret history which connects them all. Burton’s compelling plotting asks us to engage with bigger issues – aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception.

The Improbability of Love, Hannah Rothschild (winner of the 2016 Bollinger Wodehouse prize

When Annie McDermott buys a grimy, unprepossessing painting in a junk shop, little does she know it’s Watteau’s ‘The Improbability of Love’, long thought to have vanished or been destroyed. Suddenly Annie’s world seems full of unscrupulous people who’ll stop at nothing to get their hands on it. Rothschild paints her reader a vivid picture of London’s glamorous, cut-throat art-world in her pacy and beautifully-written satire.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

In Oscar Wilde’s classic novel, aesthete Dorian Gray begins to realise that his exquisite looks will fade, and sells his soul to make sure that it is not he, but his portrait, that will age and show the ravages of his dissolute, libertine life. The Picture of Dorian Gray has as much to say to us now about the cult of youth and beauty as it did when first published in 1890.

Podcast: Emma Beddington At The Books That Built Me


Emma Beddington, credit Natalie Hill [165332]
Emma Beddington, photographed by Emma Hills
If you like Emma’s blog, Belgian Waffle, you will fall completely in love with her when she talks about the books she loves – discover why Babar was a banned book in her house and why it was Simone De Beauvoir as much as French ELLE that inspired her passion for Paris and all things French.

The podcast of Emma Beddington’s Books That Built Me is now on iTunes and it’s also available on Soundcloud (see below).

“I tend to obsess over writers”: Jill Dawson on the books that inspired her latest novel, The Crime Writer


Orange prize shortlisted author, Jill Dawson, is September’s Books That Built Me guest. As well as discussing six books that inspire her as a writer, we’ll chat about her latest novel, The Crimewriter, a pitch-perfect portrait of Patricia Highsmith as well as a compelling story of clandestine love, madness and murder. The infamous snails have a glide on part too….

Dawson has often drawn on real figures and events for her novels: With The Crime Writer she has surpassed herself –casting Highsmith herself as both subject and protagonist, it is at once an extraordinary act of ventriloquism, a nuanced and empathetic portrait of troubled, drink-addicted, creative outsider, and a though-provoking exploration of the tightrope walk between fact and fiction faced by novelists like Highsmith and Dawson herself.

I talked to Jill Dawson about how she came to Highsmith’s work and what it meant for her own writing.

I knew The Talented Mr Ripley first, mostly due to the Minguella film with Matt Damon and Jude Law, which I love – that scene of them in the jazz bar is so memorable and also the very sexy scene where Dickie Greenleaf catches Tom Ripley ogling him in the bath…. Then I started reading the early ones: Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness and swapping them with my sister, and discussing them and how addictive they were. Before I knew it I’d read all 22 of them and the story collections too; some of them several times. I do tend to obsess over writers once I discover one and read an entire oeuvre rather than reading more widely over a range of authors.  I’d rather know one writer’s work in its entirety.

My favourite is probably Deep Water for its chiling depiction of jealousy turned to violent hatred. This is a novel where the protagonist’s wife Melissa tortures him by having affairs and he, while seeming calm and in control of himself, begins boasting that he has murdered her lovers.  The characterisation is superb; he’s completely believable and Highmith makes sure we are strangely sympathetic to him, not least because he is the only one who notices that his little daughter is suffering, too. It’s also one of the places where Highsmith introduces her beloved cast of snails.  (She kept them as pets).

I love her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction and recommend it to my Creative Writing students. It’s very insightful about her own methods and how hard she worked, and how many times she had to rewrite and rework things and I find that honest and consoling.

I loved The Crime Writer: my favourite kinds of books are those which combine a brilliantly plotted, un-putdownable story with a deeper layer that explores how author’s write, and the nature of fiction itself.  I can’t wait until 20th September to discover how the books Jill Dawson loves meet the books she writes.

The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson is published by Sceptre £18.99
Eventbrite - THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME: JILL DAWSON, 20th September 2016

Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster

“But in the novel we can know people perfectly, and, apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life. In this direction fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence, and, even if the novelist has not got it correctly, well- he has tried. He can post his people in as babies, he can cause them to go on without sleep or food, he can make them be in love, love and nothing but love, provided he seems to know everything about them, provided they are his creations. That is why Moll Flanders cannot be here, that is one of the reasons why Amelia and Emma cannot be here. They are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible; we are people whose secret lives are invisible.

And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us: they suggest a more comprehensible and thus more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.” EM Forster Aspects of the Novel 1927

Jilly Cooper. Gateway drug to great books.

Jilly Cooper is my universal panacea – whenever the sky looks like it’s falling in, I duck into one of her novels and shelter there for a while (rather than bolt off to tell the King like Henny Penny – the flight or fight instinct is not strong in me – I’m all about the hiding). I re-read Riders, Rivals, Polo, Imogen, Emily, Harriet, Octavian, even the lesser Jilly’s of Jump! Score! and Wicked! (Let the exclamation mark be a warning sign, though frankly, I would read my tax return if she’d written it and called it ‘HMRC!’) until I feel I can tackle whatever has sent me scuttling.

The comfort of Cooper has, of course, a lot to do with the way she writes within a conventional literary framework, rather than challenging it, and even when things look bleak for her characters, we know that the wheel of fortune will turn upwards again for them. Her language underpins this narrative certainty – things are larky, merry, jaunty – and one reads on, secure in the knowledge that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily, because, to quote Wilde, ‘that is what Fiction means’, at least in the cosy world of Cooper.

As a teenager, two authors kicked down the door to the magical, infinite riches offered by books: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was a poem which came with a free gift of a literary education, a Grand Tour of Western Culture, books upon which all sorts of other books are built: Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, The Bible and Baudelaire, Ovid and Virgil – an intellectual paradise. But Jilly Cooper took me to the books that nourish and sustain the soul – through her I discovered Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, Forever Amber, The Diary of A Provincial Lady, Cold Comfort Farm, Barbara Comyns, Mary Webb, Austen and Trollope. In her voice, in her characters and in her plots you sense the blissful influence of these writers, and if occasionally Cooper’s love for them seeps into her writing a little too literally – a character in Harriet, confronted with a bawling, teething child, suggests it should go to the dentist and Red Alderton, in Polo, is given to sporting brightly coloured jackets, piped with a contrasting braid, both of which echo Cedric in The Pursuit of Love – it’s more as a musician might use a sample than anything else, a reminder of her references, staking her claim to a particular literary tradition. 

But it’s not simply Cooper’s voice that led me down a primrose path of literary dalliance – she uses literary quotation to as a shortcut to describe character better than any other writer I can think of – sexy, temperamental, irresistible Rory Balniel is Young Lochinvar, you know Polo’s Luke Alderton is a thoroughly good egg because he reads poetry – Martin Fierro and Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening‘. Declan O’Hara, Rival’s charismatic, irascible, tragic-romantic hero’s great love is Yeats: he whispers to his faithless wife ‘there is grey in your hair, Young men no longer catch their breath, When you are passing‘ and the quote so cleverly captures the drama of their relationship, I had my head stuck in Yeat’s Collected Works for months afterwards. Cooper doesn’t only feed the quote habit of her male characters – literary women abound, and nor is literariness a universal indicator of goodness in a character – Helen, Rupert Campbell-Black’s first wife is given to earnest quoting as a sign both of her pretension and also a signifier of the mismatch in the relationship between her and Rupert, who believes reading anything other than Horse and Hound a monumental waste of time.

So, for thirty years, Cooper has sustained me, and brought me enormous pleasure, not only with her own books but with those to which she’s introduced me. If T.S Eliot and Jilly Cooper are my formative literary experiences, and if what you read can’t help but rub off onto what you write, then heaven help the Great Unfinished Novel …