I’m starting a new regular series on Miranda’s Notebook, where each month I’ll share a round up of the latest books I’ve read. I’m hoping this project will not only provide you with some interesting reading suggestions, but will also encourage me to read more, as it can be far too tempting in the evenings to zone out in front of a television show, rather than pick up a book.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
I actually read this book a few months ago, but never reviewed it, and as I just went to hear Sarah Perry discuss her novel at the Cambridge Literary Festival, I thought I could still include it in this round-up. Although not normally a fan of historical fiction (at least not if it’s set prior to the 1920s), I very much enjoyed The Essex Serpent, which is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read for some time. The story follows Cora Seabourne, an unconventional new widow and amateur naturalist who journeys from London to Essex in hope of unearthing the truth behind the rumoured mythical beast, the Essex Serpent, which is terrorising a local village. There she meets and forms a life-changing friendship with the vicar, Will Ransome.
As well as providing a thought-provoking account on how quickly fear can ignite and spread through a community, and the struggle of the individual to embrace their fears and look their demons squarely in the face, this novel is really a celebration of the many different guises of friendship and love. Just as integral to plot as the two main protagonists, are the fully-fleshed out friends and family of Cora and Will, and Sarah Perry shows her true skill as a writer in producing a whole cast of characters whose eccentricities and passions will linger in your mind long after finishing the final page.
The novel is arranged over the course of a year (it starts on New Year’s Eve and ends in November), with each month of the year divided as chapters. I was fascinated to learn that Sarah Perry wrote the book in real-time: for instance, writing the ‘June’ section of the novel in June, the ‘November’ portion in November etc. This dedication in striving after her most authentic voice certainly pays off: The Essex Serpent is charged with atmosphere, and it is easy to feel you are side-by-side with its protagonist, Cora Seabourne, as she strides through the bleak winter landscape of Essex. A perfect read to immerse yourself in during the run-up to Christmas.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
If you loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette, then you’ll definitely enjoy Maria Semple’s latest novel. In Today Will Be Different, Eleanor Flood wakes up one morning determined to be her best self. She’ll go to her yoga class, be patient with her son, loving to her husband and see an old friend for lunch. She’ll smile at strangers and put on a pretty dress, not sweats. Unfortunately for Eleanor, the day she decides to be different is the day that the past comes back to haunt her, she discovers her husband is not where he claims to be and she gets a call to pick up her son early from school. Hilarious – and entirely relatable – chaos ensues.
Maria Semple is a genius at pin-pointing the common neuroses of our time and writes with a razor-sharp wit, softened by an underlying tenderness and understanding that is extraordinary. This book would provide the perfect antidote to all the upcoming New Year Resolutions!
Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
I was lucky enough to hear Ysenda Maxtone Graham speak about her latest book, Terms & Conditions, at her book launch at Daunt Books, which made me instantly buy and read a copy. Those of you who have listened to the Introductory Tea & Tattle episode will know that, as a child, I collected girls’ boarding school books from the 1920s-1960s, and I’ve always been rather fascinated by boarding school culture. Ysenda’s book hilariously dispels the Malory Towers-tainted myth, however.
In Terms & Conditions, Ysenda (an ex-boarding school girl, herself) has collected and structured the recollections from various Old Boarding School Girls (some of them rather famous – I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes from Judith Kerr!) on what life really was like as a boarder at an all girls school. From hot water bottles that froze over night, to girls that thought a school ‘having a lab’ could only mean a Labradour, Terms & Conditions is sprinkled with reminiscences from a bygone era that are both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. This book would make the perfect Boxing Day reading material, so be sure to add it to your Christmas list!
The London Cookbook by Aleksandra Crapanzano
I am so enjoying reading this cookbook! It’s a collection of recipes from many of London’s most loved eateries (Spring, Quo Vadis, Duck Soup, St Johns etc). There are plenty of anecdotes from the chefs and alluring descriptions of dishes and restaurants to make this an entertaining read, as well as a fantastic source of what’s-for-dinner inspiration.
I generally approach restaurant cookbooks rather cautiously, expecting long lists of gadgets and ingredients I do not own to greet me as I flip through the pages, but this book is different. Happily, the majority of the recipes are relatively simple, with a refreshingly short ingredients list and nary a blowtorch in sight. Rather than making me think there’s a reason I eat at restaurants, I feel a kind of astonished confidence that yes, I could have a go at creating Peach Raspberry Mess with Toasted Almond Meringue (a Quo Vadis favourite), or perhaps Scallops with Corn Puree and Chile Oil a la Skye Gyngell.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently? I’d love to hear your recommendations!