What We're Reading – special edition

The literature team share their recommendations for lock-down reading.

Books can provide a way of de-stressing from the world around us and help to break up the day. They can also ease loneliness, especially when you find an addictive page-turner you struggle to put down. Here's what the British Council Literature team have been enjoying lately:

Creeping Jenny
by Jeff Noon

In the small village of Hoxley-on-the-Hale, the villagers carry out strange daily rituals ­– part-religious, part-superstitious, part-occult. Into this claustrophobic village life comes John Nyquist, protagonist and private eye, on a quest to discover, once and for all, what happened to his missing father.

Creeping Jenny is the third in Jeff Noon’s collection of Nyquist Mysteries, but since each title stands alone there is no need to have read the others to enjoy this one (I haven’t!). The novel is a bizarre and fantastic hybrid of folk horror and hardboiled noir – think Lolly Willowes and The Wicker Man meet Dashiell Hammett, and yet more surreal than even that concoction suggests. It is a story about the horror that intrudes on the everyday, the desire to know one’s own origin, and the dangers of being beholden to unexamined tradition. Full of eerie figures that lurk in the corner of your eye and in the shadows of your imagination, Creeping Jenny is definitely a book that stays with you long after you turn the last page.

Rose Green, Literature Programme Coordinator


Amazing by Steve Antony

Shortlisted for the BookTrust Storytime Prize, Amazing tells the story of a little boy and his pet dragon, Zibbo. We hear about the things Zibbo and our narrator, who is a wheelchair user, love doing together, even as Zibbo’s difference from other more usual pets can sometimes have a surprising impact. The prize promotes books for sharing with children and this book’s rich story and illustrations, as well as its celebration of difference, make it ideal for sharing with any little people in your life.

Sinead Russell, Director Literature


Weather by Jenny Offill

It was perhaps not quite the right time, but also the perfect time, to read Jenny Offill's new novel Weather, about a Brooklyn librarian trying to stay in love with her husband, parent her son effectively, and monitor her newly on-the-wagon brother, as the terror of the climate emergency grips her and she is quietly drawn to the world of doomsday preppers.

This isn’t a climate-themed novel of political activism, or a work of speculative fiction about the catastrophe; it’s the story of quiet desperation in the information age, of Trump and rolling news and podcasts and hearsay; of fearing that grocery shopping and the after-school pickup seem trivial, while knowing, all the while, that you have to still buy the groceries and collect your child from school. Written in standalone paragraphs that read like aphoristic, philosophical diary entries, Weather weaves isolated moments of observation, quotation and reflection into a careful pattern to make meaning from the silences between them.

It’s also a treasure trove of doomsday prep: “You can last three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food, three months without hope, but don’t drink your own urine – that is a myth – and don’t eat snow – you have to melt it first.”

Swithun Cooper, Literature Research and Information Manager


Emma by Jane Austen

I’ve just started reading Emma, by Jane Austen, having never been much of an Austen appreciator (apologies to the aficionados). I’m only a few chapters in but am already impressed at the almost textbook-like way Austen sets out her characters, and the subtle blurring of the narration as it takes on some of Emma’s own character traits. To be honest, it’s really making me slow down, which is perhaps valuable in the current situation. And I’ve also found it quite reassuring imagining a time when taking a turn in the fresh air or engaging in crafts or music at home were ways to structure your day. My housemates and I are considering taking each other’s likenesses, as this seems to generate a lot of excitement in Highbury.

Matt Beavers, Literature Programme Manager


The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins.

A panic buy just before the bookshops closed last week. At 900 pages, it should keep me going for at least some of the quarantine. The Eighth Life is the story of a Georgian family during the ‘red century’, the 20th, at the mercy of dictators, wars and huge geopolitical upheaval. As with the best books, it manages to make those abstract things seem real and immediate, and although it doesn’t sound like it, it’s a comforting read in this period of 21st century strangeness, even if only to think that after all, things could be worse. I’m also re-reading One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes, a novel set on one summer day in 1946, after the end of the Second World War. As we look forward to the end of the pandemic and wonder what our new normal might be, it’s a beautiful book to read about coming to terms with having survived but finding yourself in a whole new world where the way you used to live has been left behind forever. 

Harriet Williams, Literature Programme Manager

Black Car Burning by Helen Mort

This is Helen Mort’s first novel.  Helen is a hugely accomplished poet, and I was interested to see how the rhythms and language she uses might come out in another form. Now feels like the perfect time to read it as themes of isolation and escape come to the fore, and much of the book centres around the climbing community and the beautiful moorland of Derbyshire, which appeals very much at the moment. The dark backdrop to this story comes from the Hillsborough disaster in which nearly 100 people died. Written during the time of the inquests, we see the trauma and flashbacks that continue to affect individuals and the community in what is a highly-sophisticated exploration of time and healing. 

Rachel Stevens, Director Literature

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The poet Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985, and grew up in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. She was ...


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