Recommended fiction reading – Easter 2023

Many of those who follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn are working in the field of education, and I fully appreciate how pressured term time can be in schools and colleges. But when I was working as a teacher and a leader in schools, I always found that in the longer holidays I had more time to read for pleasure, and, for me, that was a very useful way to unwind. I find reading restful, but also energising and uplifting. So in the run up to Christmas 2022 I published a blog post of recommended fiction reading, and as we come up to Easter 2023 I am writing another. The books I talk about here are all novels I have very much enjoyed recently.

I must confess I don’t tend to read reviews. I always feel I would rather make up my own mind about a book than be influenced by someone else’s opinion. And when I have occasionally read a review, I have often found that it gives me far more detail about what happens in the novel than I want to know beforehand. But I do rely on the recommendations of others, and have discovered some amazing authors and novels by following the advice of other readers. So in this post I want to give enough information to help anyone who reads it decide whether each is a book they might enjoy, but not so much information that it actually spoils their reading experience!

‘Great Circle’, by Maggie Shipstead

I mentioned in my December post that my Book Clubs often lead me to new authors, and Maggie Shipstead is one of them. We read ‘Seating Arrangements’ for one of my Book Club meetings, and I went on to look at other titles by the same author. I particularly enjoyed ‘Great Circle’.

One of the benefits of reading for me is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about the lives of characters whose experiences are quite different from my own, and this is an excellent example of that. It follows the exploits of Marian Graves, a fictional early female aviator, and her attempt to circumnavigate the globe longitudinally in 1950. But, cleverly, Marian’s story is interwoven with a narrative featuring a second heroine, Hadley Baxter, a contemporary Hollywood star who is to appear as Marian in her latest film.

I found both of these characters, their stories, and the connections between them (despite their wildly differing contexts) completely compelling. This is a long book, but I was enthralled throughout, immersed in a fascinating world – in fact, two fascinating worlds. This is one of the books I didn’t want to get to the end of, and found myself slowing down, to make it last longer, in the final chapters.

‘Longbourn, by Jo Baker, and ‘The Other Bennet Sister’, by Janice Hadlow

I will discuss these titles together, as there is a crucial link: ‘Longbourn’ tells the story of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from the perspective of the Bennets’ servants. ‘The Other Bennet Sister’ considers the novel from the perspective of Mary, and focusses on her story initially within, and then beyond, Austen’s narrative. I think you could enjoy either without having read Austen’s novel, although I would expect fans of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to enjoy the novels even more, as the connections between the servants’ experiences, and Mary’s narrative, with Austen’s original story add an extra layer to the reading experience. Both novels are well-written and thoughtfully paced and structured. I fully understand that some die-hard Austen devotees might shrink from considering such a retelling, but I would recommend both books.

One of the interesting elements of ‘Longbourn’ is how it reflects on the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ story. In the Austen novel, military conflict is represented by smart crimson uniforms with shining buttons; in Longbourn we see the reality of fighting in the Napoleonic Wars in Spain, and the flogging of a soldier back in England. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’, we admire Lizzie’s determination to battle mud and rough weather to visit Jane who is unwell at Netherfield; in Jo Baker’s story we see how difficult it is for the housemaid Sarah to try to clean and repair the ravages to Elizabeth’s clothing. ‘Longbourn’ compels us to think about issues such as illegitimacy, the relationships between trade and slavery, the reality of travelling through the dirty and noisy London streets at the turn of the 18th/19th century. It also encourages us to view Elizabeth and D’Arcy’s happy ending rather differently.

The character of Mary might be described as getting a raw deal in ‘Pride and Prejudice’; she is certainly considered a figure of fun, or embarrassment, by most of her family. ‘The Other Bennet Sister’ is, however, a compassionate consideration of what it might have been like to fill Mary’s place as the middle sibling in this family of five daughters. Mary is a well-drawn, warm and sympathetic character, though, true to Austen’s portrayal, she lacks the physical attractiveness of her sisters, and is initially awkward. She grows as the novel progresses, and the reader does care about her and her fate. We are encouraged to consider how she is treated by the rest of the family, and how her position as the odd one out (between Jane and Elizabeth on the one hand, and Kitty and Lydia on the other) leads to her sense of isolation and neglect. The storytelling here felt true to Austen’s own fiction and, as all good books do, this novel made me think.

‘American Dirt’, by Jeanine Cummins

This is a book which has definitely stayed with me since I read it – and I suspect it will do so for some time to come. It is the extremely powerful – though in some ways disturbing – story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and young son fleeing a drug cartel and making their way from Acapulco, north through Mexico and across the border into the United States. Along the way, they meet a range of different characters, some of whom help them, and others who threaten them and jeopardise their safety.

There is dramatic description (for example in the section dealing with the migrants’ boarding the infamous freight train ‘La Bestia’), frequent tension (I found I was holding my breath and reading faster in places), and insights into both the worst and the best of human nature. This is a novel which doesn’t pull any punches, and there are places where it is hard to read, but I thought it was tremendously exciting, brilliantly written and ultimately affirming rather than depressing.

‘Best of Friends’, by Kamila Shamsie

I have read several books by Kamila Shamsie, and enjoyed them all, beginning with the brilliant ‘Home Fire’. My most recent read, ‘Best of Friends’, charts the relationship between Zahra and Maryam, from their teenage years in Karachi in the 1980s to their lives in post-Brexit Britain 30 years later. They work and socialise in London, carving out quite different paths but still connected by their upbringing and their shared history. Zahra is the ‘fourth member’ of Maryam’s household, comprising Maryam, her partner and young daughter – a three year old I thought was brilliantly depicted.

I thought Kamila Shamsie captured adolescent preoccupations and friendships extremely well in the Pakistan section of the novel. I found the way in which she developed the two central characters over time, and described their relationships with each other, their families and wider social circle, compelling and interesting. The exploration of the tensions which emerge and come to a head as the novel reaches its climax kept me engaged to the end.

So there you go, five fiction recommendations which I hope you might find useful.

In other news, I’ve started work on a fourth novel and am enjoying the process of writing. I find it an interesting creative challenge, and see that it’s good to write for yourself at the outset, without worrying unduly about what others might make of it!

I am proud of my three short novels, ‘The Dresser’, ‘#OneWord’ and ‘The Button Box’, but am trying to pace and structure this fourth story so that it is longer and more sustained (80,000 words rather than around 55,00 words). We’ll see – I will keep you posted.

The three short novels are available in one volume, an e-book and a paperback, here:

The Dresser #OneWord The Button Box eBook : Berry, Jill: Kindle Store

Happy reading!

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