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.


Trump’s America – the podcast


With less than a month to go to the US presidential election, Donald Trump is barely seven points behind Hilary Clinton in the polls. How do you explain the astonishing rise of an unlikely demagogue like Trump? How much does he reflect signs of a deeper division in America – one which has possibly been there since the country was founded ? And how much is he simply an anomaly, whose popularity will dissipate once the first woman president of the United States is in the White House?

This week I was joined at Mark’s Club by  best-selling author Lionel Shriver, and writer, broadcaster and academic Professor Sarah Churchwell to talk about Trump’s America: why post-truth politics is stranger than fiction.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, the Mandibles, at once satirical and dystopian, maps an isolated America in 2029, on the cusp of a financial apocalypse as the world switches to a new global reserve currency, backed by a coalition of countries led by Russia’s ‘ruler for life’ Vladimir Putin. In 2029, there’s already a ‘great wall’ – built by the Mexicans to keep the US economic migrants out, and the Republican party has imploded, leaving the US as a single party democracy. Is this simply fiction, or the likely consequences of the current political crisis in the US?

Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People, is an exquisite analysis of the politics, economics and social context of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. As Sarah has said, ‘the America Trump inhabits is actually the one that Fitzgerald predicted in Gatsby, where we slip by unknowing degrees into accepting what once we would have deplored….Jay Gatsby is redeemed by his idealism: Donald Trump is what Gatsby would have been if he had no soul to corrupt in the first place.’The question is, how did we get here from there? And, if the 1920’s hold a mirror up to where we are now, what lessons can be drawn as we reflect on what the future can hold?

Listen to the podcast on iTunes here or below on soundcloud

Jilly Cooper at The Books That Built Me

I have adored Jilly Cooper almost since I can remember first reading grown-up books. I still have the very tattered copies of Emily, Harriet, Imogen, Octavia, Prudence, Bella and so on that I fell in lomount-2ve with when still a schoolgirl for the novels’ racy glamour and wonderful heroines for whom the bumpy course of true-love eventually runs smooth.

I’m old enough to remember Riders’ sensational launch – what did the Telegraph call it? ‘Fetlocks and Fornication’ – and to have had it confiscated by a prefect when caught reading it during prep; wrapping it in the cover of my biology textbook was evidently an inadequate disguise. Rupert Campbell-Black is surely one of the most desirable romantic rotters of the last thirty years?

A considerable part of my home library is dedicated to her many subsequent novels, all of which are my ‘go-to’ comfort reads.

But for me, Jilly Cooper is more than just comfort reading or escapism: her books have built me as a reader: one of the many enchanting things about her work is that it wears its learning very lightly, and her own immensely satisfying novels kicked down a door to a magical literary world in a way that my teachers at school never could. I would never have discovered the delights of Mitford, left to my own devices, and remained entirely immune to the many charms of Yeats until captivated by Declan O’Hara in Rivals. There are many, many more examples – she has shaped my own taste in books to a very satisfying degree.

Anyway, I can’t tell you how beside myself with joy I am to welcome Jilly Cooper to The Books That Built Me on 22nd November. We will be in the elegant surroundings of Gieves and Hawkes, No.1 Savile Row – I can’t help feeling that Rupert Campbell-Black would have his suits made there – and in addition to a hardback copy of Mount! Jilly’s latest novel (in which R C-B returns), each ticket comes with a glass of Champagne Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate, in addition to a subscription to Town and Country Magazine.

Tickets are £45 and are available here




Janet Ellis will be at The Books That Built Me on Tuesday 18th October 2016 to talk about her astonishing first novel, The Butcher’s Hook, and about the books that have inspired her, and helped her hone her craft.

Of course, Janet Ellis will be familiar to many from her long and varied career in television – she was one of my favourite Blue Peter presenters as a child – and as mother of Sophie Ellis-Bextor, but joining the prestigious Curtis Brown writing school allowed her to fulfil a long-cherished ambition to write a novel. Her agent submitted The Butcher’s Hook to publishers under a pseudonym: the ensuing bidding war between rival publishers resulted in a six figure two book deal with Two Rivers – almost unheard of for a debut novelist.

The Butcher’s Hook is a dark, gothic story set in eighteenth century London – its damaged, vulnerable yet compelling heroine, Anne Jaccob, is the only surviving child of comfortably off parents, yet her mother, worn out by miscarriages and still births, is only a shadowy presence, and her father seems not to see the point of his daughter, except as someone who can be married off. Friendless, lonely, yet sharp-witted and imaginative, Anne falls for the butcher’s boy, and the consequences of a bright, bold girl starved of affection are darker than anyone could have anticipated.

The Butcher’s Hook is meticulously researched, offering a vivid picture of life in 1760 and its part of Ellis’ skill that its protagonist, Anne, remains both appealing and vulnerable despite her transgressions. I’m dying to discover how Janet Ellis’ reading fired her ambition to be a writer, and became the literary building blocks of this astonishing debut.

Join me at The Books That Built Me with Janet Ellis on Tuesday 18th October 2016 at the Club at Cafe Royal. The salon starts at 6.30 and finishes by 8.15, and tickets include a copy of The Butcher’s Hook, a glass of Champagne Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a six month subscription to Harper’s Bazaar. The all-inclusive ticket is £35.



Emma Beddington at The Books That Built Me

emma beddington the books that built me

“You’re not quite the same person in another language – I’m not funny in French”, said Emma Beddington, author of We’ll Always Have Paris and of cult blog, Belgian Waffle. She is wonderfully funny in English, so I can’t imagine she isn’t a little bit drôle in French too.

We met at the Club at Cafe Royal to talk about the books that have inspired her as a writer – the humour of Wodehouse, the magic spell not only cast by French Elle but also by Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, the immensely humorous David Sedaris, who’s also seduced by an idealised France, and for whom learning the language has extraordinary comic benefits, Patrick McGuinness on the endearing absurdity of Belgium and finally, Don Marquis’s Archy, offering a metaphor for the difficulty of writing.

The podcast will be up on iTunes next week; in the meantime, here are the books that Emma chose.

The Code of The Woosters, P.G Wodehouse

“Wodehouse is formulaic: there’ll be a terrible incident where someone’s taking a fly out of someone else’s eye and is thought to be embracing them…but it’s that swan effect – Wodehouse’s writing appears beautiful and easy and as if tossed off lightly, and yet he worked hard at it. Both my parents loved Wodehouse, so he became a common language”

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir

“This first volume takes us from her infancy to when she first meets Sartre – it’s a classic picture of an upright, bourgeois French Catholic family and De Beauvoir is a conventional Catholic daughter, always into her studies…She puts her amazing analytical skills to talking about childhood – she’s a forensically precise writer but she addresses these really sensual subjects. It was the first French book I read after Babar – my mum gave me this in my mid teens. Paris is like a character in this book, it got me excited about Paris, I thought, this is where I need to be”

La Bete Humaine, Emile Zola

“I studied history, and loved French history. Zola had a stakhanovite work ethic, he was so interested in th big issues of the day and everything that was important in that period, he writes about it. This one is about the arrival of the steam age and is about the amazing relationship between man and machine, man and steam engine – the train has a real personality. [Above all], La Bete Humaine is a real page turner.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

“Managing [as Sedaris does] to be that dark and that funny is everything I aspire to”

Other People’s Countries, Patrick McGuinness

“Belgium is a really odd place in terms of language and identity, which are the things that really interest me. The Belgians are completely in tune with a sense of the absurd – the surrealists all came from Belgium.”

Archy & Mehitabel, Don Marquis

“Archy is a cockroach and Mehitabel is a cat and Archy bashes out free verse on a typewriter using his head. Archy finds writing hard, as do I   -Don Marquis found writing painful and hard – the writing process is not always easy and sometimes you have to band your head in order to get anywhere.”

We’ll Always Have Paris, Emma Beddington, is published by Pan Macmillan.


Event: Lionel Shriver at The Books That Built Me

I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author, Lionel Shriver to the Books That Built Me on 17th May to hear her talk about the books that have inspired her writing.

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver shot to fame with her best-selling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Never one to shy away from the difficult or controversial, her books since have explored the U.S healthcare system, obesity, population growth and terrorism. Her latest, ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’ is published on 12th May: its subject is a future financial apocalypse and her novel combines terrifying plausibility and inventive satire.

Lionel has chosen an original and intriguing six books to discuss next month: I can’t wait to explore how they’ve marked the milestones on her extraordinary writing journey. Tickets are £35 and include a copy of The Mandibles, A Family, 2029-2047, a six month subscription to Tatler, a glass of Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate.