As bookshelves go, the ones in Curtis Brown literary agent Felicity Blunt’s home must be very well-stacked – she represents bestselling authors Renée Knight and Rosamund Lupton, as well as former Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing student Clêr Lewis. But the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction website asked her recently to pick her favourite novels for their ‘My Bookshelfie’ page, and we enjoyed the piece so much we’ve stolen it for our own blog. You can find the original here.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
This isn’t on my bookshelf but it’s on my iPad! The book oscillates between the days before and after a super virus that decimates the world’s population. The author pulls off a wonderful balancing act between the minutiae of relationships, love and work pre-virus, which we can all recognise, and the grind of survival post humanity’s near extinction, which we then project ourselves into. Shakespeare endures, thanks to the work of a group of travelling performers and their assorted skills and with it the magic of his plays and the hope of a world capable again of creative sophistication. Her vision for a near future feels scarily prescient.
2. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
What can one say about this book that hasn’t already been said, and far more eloquently? Henry VIII’s obsession with a male heir is ultimately the axis on which political collateral and personal ambition spin. Enter Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell whose rude intelligence and almost enlightened understanding of the world stand him apart from the titled and entitled. This book is fantastically researched, shrewdly funny and surprisingly poignant. Read it, its follow-up Bring Up The Bodies and join the infinite number of people who hungrily await the third instalment.
3. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
This is the first in the meticulously researched historical crime series featuring the 12th-century medical examiner Adelia Aguilar. I love it for its rich detail, sly humour and the interweaving of real-life characters such as Henry II with Franklin’s surly and determined heroine. Adelia is an oddity, a Salerno-trained female doctor and one who specialises in autopsies. A champion for her victims, she is terribly vulnerable in an era of religious superstition and extreme beliefs. Franklin’s descriptions of Henry II are as delicious as Mantel’s of Cromwell. Franklin also wrote historical fiction under her real name Diana Norman and each is a joy.
4. City of Women by David R Gillham
Set in Berlin during WWII, this story focuses on the civilian women of that city – not all of who were ardent supporters of the Nazi cause. Sigrid, unhappily married, is through chance circumstance pulled by a young neighbour into an enterprise to help smuggle ‘undesirables’ out of the city. The stakes are nerve-shreddingly high and the opportunities for betrayal endless. Ultimately everyone is capable of terrible acts when faced with terrible choices, or the chance of saving a loved one. Sigrid’s decision to stop looking the other way will have terrible consequences for her personally but allows her to come alive again.
5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A series of interlocking stories in which Egan plays with time, tense, relationships and voices to create a symphony of unequalled delights. We encounter characters in their adult maturity and then slide back to their infancy, and your heart breaks for what they don’t yet know. The American music industry is the backdrop and Egan’s characters ricochet off it and each other, and all the while we feel the underlying connectedness of relationships and love.
6. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Another book that plays with time, but in this novel the author recasts the life of her main character Ursula again and again and again. She might die the day she is born, or in Germany with a child during WWII, or patrolling London streets during the Blitz. Through the kaleidoscope of possibilities and the exploration of relationships, chance encounters and familial obligation we enjoy a life like no other. Who hasn’t wondered about the path not taken?
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.