The Books That Built Sarah Perry


Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent – a compelling tale of superstition, science, love and friendship set in late Victorian England, winner of the 2016 Waterstones Prize and Costa shortlisted, has coiled its charm around readers everywhere since its publication in February 2016. Sarah herself is equally bewitching, as guests at her Books That Built Me discovered when we met to discuss six books that have inspired her writing.

Listen to the podcast below on soundcloud, or find it on itunes by subscribing to the Books That Built Me channel.

The Books That Built Sarah Perry

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Tess of the d’Urbevilles, Thomas Hardy

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel

Silence, Shusaku Endo.


EVENT: Elizabeth Day, The Party

elizabeth day times
Elizabeth Day, photographed by Dan Kennedy for the Times 

I’ve always spoken with a voice that’s posher than my background” writes Elizabeth Day in this weekend’s Times magazine, “…people make assumptions about me, but those assumptions can sometimes work in my favour…. I’ve met peers of the realm, royalty, Old Etonians and the filthy rich and I’ve spent a lifetime observing the British ‘ruling class’ – those people with the stature, breeding, wealth or connections to be regarded as elites. I’ve also just written a novel about them, The Party, set in the heart of the establishment.

The Party, Elizabeth Day’s fourth novel, is peopled by the same wealthy, powerful products of the public school system she’s spent a lifetime observing,  but it’s a thousand miles from a jolly Jilly Cooper-ish romp around the Chipping Norton set that one might expect. It’s a dark, note-perfect literary thriller whose themes of obsession and betrayal, privilege and hypocrisy underscore how the establishment will always close ranks to protect one of its own.  Like Day herself, the novel’s protagonist, Martin Gilmore is an outsider, a scholarship boy given entree into the world of the privileged few by virtue of his relationship with his childhood friend, Ben Fitzmaurice. But Ben and Martin are bound together by a secret, and things come to an explosive head at a party to celebrate Ben’s fortieth birthday.

Elizabeth Day’s novel is acutely observed, brilliantly imagined, tautly plotted and, although often intensely uncomfortable, it’s utterly gripping. Imagine The Go-Between re-written by Patricia Highsmith and you have a sense of the skill with which she brings her world to life. Whilst previous novels have won both plaudits and prizes – her first won the Betty Trask Award – The Party is the novel in which Day’s considerable ability realises its potential.

I’m delighted that Elizabeth Day will be The Books That Built Me’s next guest, on Tuesday 25th July. In addition to her journalism – in print and on television and radio –  and her novels (she is awe-inspiringly productive), Elizabeth is the co-founder of Pin Drop, a storytelling initiative for adults which stages short story narration in exciting settings and her ‘literary happening’ was one of the things that inspired me to create The Books That Built Me.

Tickets to Elizabeth Day’s Books That Built Me cost £30 and include a hardback copy of The Party, a glass of Champagne Bollinger, and a chocolate treat. The event takes place at the very chic Maison Assouline on Piccadilly and doors open at 6.30pm with the talk beginning at 6.50pm.

£7 from each ticket will be donated to the National Literacy Trust – The Books That Built Me celebrates the great joy reading brings to all of us, and in particular, how great readers grow into great writers; giving the profits from the event to the National Literacy Trust is a way of helping young children access the great benefits of being able to read. Who knows, some of the children the charity helps may grow into the authors of the future.

The Party, Elizabeth Day, is published on 13th July 2017



From you have I been absent in the Spring

cathy rentzenbrink pic

From you have I been absent in the spring.

Not only the spring, most of the summer too – we are now past the solstice, the days shorten, the hours gather pace and run away from us – Busy old fool, unruly sun. But if I have been quiet, it has not been for lack of thinking about The Books That Built Me. The truth is that the year has been a difficult one and I’ve been unable to read with the kind of Stakhanovite vigour that The Books That Built Me requires. The first reason for this is rather prosaic; simply a lack of time. I started a new job in February as the CEO of Walpole, which is the trade body that looks after the British Luxury sector, and the learning curve has been immense. A little like learning a foreign language, the effort of concentration required was so intense that, for the first three months of the job, I came home and went straight to bed, and so my discretionary reading time was sucked up by endless swotting of The Economist, government green papers on New Industrial Strategy and the like, and a very serious tome Mr Trefusis gave me about by a Harvard Business School guru called Michael Porter which made me feel very relieved I had never taken it into my head to get an MBA. The second reason for going AWOL was that my father died. As one might imagine, it’s impossible to sail through that particular one unscathed. I found I couldn’t read any fiction at all. Sidling off for a little holiday in someone else’s imagination seemed too much like I was colluding with the voice inside my head that kept telling me his death was an invention. I knew all about the Kubler-Ross grief cycle, I couldn’t afford to get stuck in denial; by standing firm and staring down the cataclysm, by facing the facts unflinchingly, perhaps I could fast track myself to acceptance.  But grief is not so cooperative. Over the top you go when the whistle blows, and you find your stoicism about as much use as service revolver when faced with the heavy, repetitive fire of sadness. That I haven’t found myself strung out on the wire in some no man’s land of melancholy is due in no small part to Cathy Rentzenbrink’s A Manual For Heartache. It does exactly what it promises – it offers a survival guide for hard times and it is, as she writes in the introduction, “ a loving message in a bottle – tossed into the sea to wash up at the feet of someone in need”. It washed up at the right time for me, and brought me slowly out of my tunnel to “see the chink of light into a dark day, remembering others have walked this path before me”.

Towards the end of the book, she offers a reading list – books that “have held my hand in dark times, sometimes teaching me a helpful lesson, sometimes just sitting with me as we wait for the wind to change.” Her list includes I Capture the Castle, The Pursuit of Love and “almost everything by P.G Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer”, and in the gentle care of Heyer’s Frederica I started to feel a little better. Since historical fiction felt like a safer place to start (perhaps a psychologist might be able to explain why),  I’ve since re-read Forever Amber and the entire Uhtred oeuvre of Bernard Cornwall, and Eureka!, Anthony Quinn’s exhilarating follow up to Freya, set in heady late sixties London of Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

The promised wind-change has begun.

A Manual For Heartbreak, Cathy Rentzenbrink, is published by Picador on 29th June 2017, RRP: £10.00


Georgette Heyer has been on my mind – and my bedside table – an awful lot recently, partly because her delicious novels are always the perfect antidote to depressing headlines, and partly because Jilly Cooper chose Devil’s Cub as one of her Books That Built Me. Devil’s Cub is the sequel to These Old Shades, the novel that made Heyer’s reputation as a historical novelist, in which the deeply attractive, irredeemably badly behaved Marquis of Vidal, every bit as rakeish,  reckless and shockingly loose in the haft as his father, plans to run off to France with one girl, but finds he has absconded with her sister instead. Vidal is a marvellous literary badboy, and meets his match in the fearless, sharp-witted Mary Challoner in a novel where screwball comedy meets satisfying historical romance.

Vidal spoke softly: “Come here.”

“I have something to say to you first, my lord,” returned Miss Challoner calmly.

“Good God, girl, do you suppose it was to hear you talk that I brought you to France?” Vidal said derisively. “I’ll swear you know better than that!”

“Perhaps,” admitted Miss Challoner. “Nevertheless, sir, I beg you will listen to me. You won’t pretend, I hope, that you are fallen in love with me.”

“Love?” he said scornfully. “No, madam. I feel no more love for you than I felt for your pretty sister. But you’ve thrown yourself at my head, and by God I’ll take you!” His eyes ran over her. “You’ve a mighty trim figure, my dear, and from what I can discover, more brain than Sophia. You lack her beauty, but I’m not repining.”

She looked gravely up at him. “My lord, if you take me, it will be for revenge, I think. Have I deserved so bitter a punishment?”

“You’re not very complimentary, are you?” he mocked.

She rose, holding her pistol behind her. “Let me go now,” she said. “You do not want me, and indeed I think you have punished me enough.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it?” he said. “Are you piqued that I liked Sophia better? Never heed it, my dear; I’ve forgotten the wench already.”

“My lord,” she said desperately, “indeed I am not what you think me!”

He burst into one of his wild laughs, and she realized that in this mood she could make no impression upon him.

He was advancing towards her. She brought her right hand from behind her, and levelled the pistol. “Stand where you are!” she said. “If you come one step nearer I shall shoot you down.”

He stopped short. “Where did you get that thing?” he demanded.

“Out of your coach,” she answered.

“Is it loaded?”

“I don’t know,” said Miss Challoner, incurably truthful.

He began to laugh again, and walked forward. “Shoot then,” he invited, “and we shall know. For I’m coming several steps nearer, my lady.”

Miss Challoner saw that he meant it, shut her eyes, and resolutely pulled the trigger. There was a deafening report and the Marquis went staggering back. He recovered in a moment. “It was loaded,” he said coolly.

I asked Jilly Cooper why she had chosen Devil’s Cub –

I went to a boarding school. I was so miserable. The only men we ever saw were lorry drivers and very ancient gardeners. Desperately frustrated we were, and Georgette Heyer wrote these marvellous novels and they had the kind of amazingly glamorous heroes we dreamt about. It’s a heavenly read – she writes very, very well and characterises very well and the loveliest thing, the Devil’s Cub’s father appears in a previous book [These Old Shades] where he marries a girl and twenty four year’s later in this one, he’s still married to her and still desperately in love. We like love. [Vidal] is horrible, not a nice man at all, but he’s very good looking and he’s terribly nice to [Mary Challenor] later when she’s sick on the boat…I think people can be reformed by love, in fiction anyway.”

Heyer’s model of the literary badboy – aristocratic, arrogant, maverick and privileged, a great horseman and incorrigible hell-raiser, an inveterate womaniser, broad of shoulder and long of leg, effortlessly beautifully dressed and capricious yet noble, loyal, and, deep-down, kind-hearted – has powerful echoes in Cooper’s great fictional hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. It’s interesting to see with what great skill both authors construct a hero who is at once extraordinarily badly behaved, and yet also utterly irresistible.

Heyer has a huge cult following – and has been chosen by several Books That Built Me guests: Sarah Churchwell, India Knight and Sasha Wilkins amongst others- I recently recorded a podcast with author Sarrah Manning to talk about our shared passion – you can listen here on soundcloud, or subscribe to the Books That Built Me podcasts on iTunes.

I’m also a huge fan of the Backlisted podcasts – the latest is a very enjoyable and erudite look at Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in the company of Cathy Rentzenbrink and Una McCormack. Very much worth a listen.


On Wednesday 22nd March, The Books That Built Me is delighted to welcome best-selling author and screenwriter Jake Arnott to The Devonshire Club to talk about the six books that have inspired his writing and to discuss his latest novel, The Fatal Tree, a beguiling, inventive novel set in the criminal underworld of the 18th century, inspired by the true story of Edgworth Bess and her lover and partner in crime, Jack Sheppard.

Jake Arnott burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel The Long Firm, which sold more than a quarter of a million copies and was later a highly acclaimed drama series for the BBC. His successive novels quickly established his reputation as a writer of great talent, unafraid to take risks, crafting highly original tales in which, as the Guardian wrote, “his fictional (or more accurately, factional) characters bristle with authenticity.” Arnott’s most recent novel, The House of Rumour, was a dark, inventive story structured around the Tarot Arcana, which deftly balanced the pacy enjoyment of a thriller with bigger questions about what it means to be human, taking in cults, espionage, science fiction, Rudolf Hess and the Bloomsbury literary scene of the thirties.

The Fatal Tree is every bit as ambitious; its clever blend of fact and fiction conjures a seamy, riveting, Hogarthian world of thieves dens, brothels, molly-houses, vermin-infested prisons and coffee-houses, and I can’t wait to talk to Arnott about how he created such a compelling world.

Please note that Jake Arnott’s Books That Built Me is on a Wednesday and is also in a new venue, The Devonshire Club, which is barely a stone’s throw from the birthplace of The Fatal Tree’s Jack Sheppard, but more practically, it’s less than five minutes walk from Liverpool Street Tube station.

The Devonshire Club combines the chic, relaxed glamour of a Mayfair club with discerning elegance of the city. The brainchild of the people behind The Arts Club and Home House, the Club occupies an appropriately contextual 18th Century former East India Company warehouse and a large Georgian townhouse, yet the interior is as modern as you might expect from a writer like Arnott, and oozes the kind of sybaritic environment you’ve come to expect from The Books That Built Me.

Tickets cost £35 and include a hardback copy of The Fatal Tree, a six month subscription to Harper’s Bazaar, a glass of Champagne Bollinger and a chocolate treat.

The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott. published by Sceptre on 23rd February 2017, £16.99

“I’m not creating God; I’m reality’s gaoler.” Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave


‘War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon‘. So begins Chris Cleave’s brilliant, immensely satisfying fourth novel. Inspired by family wartime letters and diaries, Everyone Brave is Forgiven tells the story of four friends caught up in the war; each heartbreakingly courageous in the face of its vivid cruelties, and captures everything of the resilience and pluck of that time, both on the front line and on the home front. Powerful and moving, it’s note perfect:  the dialogue has all the clipped subtlety of a Mrs Miniver or In Which We Serve or of Greene and Balchin, yet underpinned by its characters human frailty and a wry, mordant sense of humour too.

What’s more, Cleave cleverly pries beneath the familiar backdrop of the Blitz and the front, and shows us the forgotten stories: the plight of black (and disabled) children, not considered ‘suitable’ for evacuation to the country and the increasingly grim privations of the Siege of Malta.

Whilst the book’s plot is an invention, its genesis was Cleave’s way of connecting to his grandparent’s wartime experiences – his grandfather was stationed in Malta, his paternal grandmother, Margaret Slater, drove ambulances in the Blitz and his maternal grandmother, Mary West, was a teacher who ran her own school and kindergarten. As Cleave says in his afterword, ‘Theirs was a generation whose choices were made quickly, through bravery and instinct, and whose hopes always hung by a thread. They had to have enormous faith in life and in one another. they wrote letters in ink, and these missives might take weeks or months to get through if they made it at all. Because a letter meant so much, they poured themselves into each one – as f there might be no more paper, no more ink, no more animating hand.

It’s rare I put everything aside so I can finish a novel in a single day (I wish Middlemarch would have the same effect, for all Virginia Woolf called it ‘one of the few English novels for grown-up people’), but Cleave’s involving characters hold you captive in their world and you can’t bear to put the book down until you’ve discovered what happens to them, admired their courage and asked yourself the question; would I have been as brave if I were in their shoes? I can’t help but feel I would have found myself falling short of the standard set by Mary, Alistair, Tom and Hilda.

In his afterword, Cleave writes, “If you will forgive the one piece of advice a writer is qualified to give: never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself. – when asked if he’d learned other lessons from writing that he’d like to pass on, he said;

“I’ve learned that real life is more mysterious, frightening and fragile than anything one can make up. I’ve learned that real life doesn’t think freakish coincidences are a hackneyed plot device. Neither does real life shy away from destroying someone just because he or she is a sympathetic character.

Gloriously, I’ve also learned that people you meet in real life are very unrealistic. The marvellous problem for fiction is to capture this preposterous, implausible and blazingly eccentric life, and to put it in a cell overnight, to sober it up until it reads believably on the page. That’s what a novelist is: I’m not a creating God, I’m reality’s gaoler.”

Join me on Tuesday 17th January to discover how Chris Cleave taught himself to be ‘reality’s gaoler‘ as we discuss the books that built him. Tickets are available via the eventbrite link below and include a copy of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, a glass of Champagne Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a six month subscription to Harper’s Bazaar.


Janet Ellis at The Books That Built me

Janet Ellis and I met at the Club at Cafe Royal for the latest in the Books That Built Me salon series to talk about the books that inspired her to be a writer. The Butcher’s Hook is often described as her debut – I have done so myself on these pages – but Janet actually wrote her first book at the precocious age of ten yet became rather distracted from her vocation by the allure of a career on television, acting and presenting before the Curtis Brown writing programme lured her back to her path. Ellis has a two book deal with Two Roads, and I’m sure they won’t have to wait quite as long for her next novel – which, as Janet told guests, involves adultery and the 1970’s.

Guests drank Champagne Bollinger and ate Prestat’s fabulously creamy white chocolate (possibly the nicest white chocolate I’ve tasted – the kind the Milky Bar Kid might collapse from joy after tasting) and Janet told us why poetry fired a love of how language sounds on the tongue and on the page, why National Velvet turned her into a voracious reader, how the fifties ‘nature/nurture’ best seller, The Bad Seed, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On a Train, gave her a fascination with the fine line that divides ordinary people from transgressive acts, and why Candia McWilliam’s heartbreaking memoir is a love letter about loss.

Here are the Books That Built Janet Ellis

The Golden Treasury of Poetry, selected by Louis Untermeyer

National Velvet, Enid Bagnold

The Bad Seed, William March

Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith

Good Behaviour, Molly Keane

What to Look for in Winter, Candia McWilliam

You can listen to Janet talking about her Books That Built Me on the podcast (below on soundcloud, but it’s also available on as a podcast on iTunes here )

The next Books That Built Me is with Jilly Cooper on 22nd November 2016.