Library Assistant at Royston Library
Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
This tale of a Latin American Sheherazade stepped into my life in my late teens and I’ve been captivated by her and Allende’s many other books ever since but it’s Eva that I still go back to. Set in an unnamed South American country, this transporting and atmospheric novel uses magical realism to tell the turbulent story of Eva Luna. Born to red-headed Consuelo, an imaginative servant to an embalmer doctor and a silent snake-bitten man from the Luna tribe, following her mother’s death Eva has to make her own way in the world.
In a world populated by eccentric godmothers, rebel generals, and bordello madams, Eva weaves the tales of photographer Rolf Carlé, himself scarred by a brutal childhood and Riad Habibi, a tragic but compassionate shopkeeper into her own until she is able to make her way in the world by using her skill with words. I love the contrast between the mythical fairy tale stories and the realistic and hard-hitting descriptions of political turmoil, based on Allende’s years in Chile.
I was once lucky enough to get tickets to a talk by Isabel Allende at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. She speaks as she writes, captivating and creative, a true storyteller. Eva Luna is full of heart and soul and magical stories; this really is my favourite book.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel – Part story, part cookbook, lose yourself in tastes and tales of the De La Garza family and of Tita and Pedro’s enduring love.
The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende – Eva Luna is asked to tell twenty-three stories ‘that you have never told anyone before’. This sequel entwines real life and magic, evil and innocence to capture your heart with her imagination.
The Batch Lady: Shop Once, Cook Once, Eat Well All Week by Suzanne Mulholland
OK, hands up who is fed up with deciding what to cook, budgeting for food and cooking all the time? Then The Batch Lady is a must-read. Born out of her YouTube channel where she makes 10 dinners in 1 hour (not sure I could do it that quickly but it is massively time-saving), Suzanne has distilled all of her batching knowledge into this book.
Not just a recipe book, The Batch Lady explains how to organise yourself to batch cook, maximise your freezer use and recommends the essential kit you need to streamline your meal making. From basic sauces and easy side dishes, through veggie, fish and meat mains and delicious desserts, there are ideas for every taste and occasion. Try the easy roast potatoes, Chilli Bean Burgers, Mozzarella Stuffed Meatballs or Chicken Alfredo Pasta Bake? Finish off with a Biscoff Cheesecake, all cooked efficiently and frozen, ready to ease the aggravation of everyday cooking. This book definitely contributed to less stressed dinner times in our house, it’s always good to have something up your sleeve (or in the freezer).
Save with Jamie by Jamie Oliver – Published in 2013 but still massively useful and relevant now. Jamie uses one large ingredient (roast chicken, side of salmon) to cook a main dish, then transforms the leftovers into other completely different meals.
Economy Gastronomy by Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merrett – Eat better and spend less with this all-encompassing book about saving on your food shopping, stocking your store cupboard and supercharging your suppers.
The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
I’d never really considered what living in Midwest ‘small-town’ America was really like unless through the glamorous lens of Hollywood until I read this book. The Lost Continent made me realise the similarities to my own British hometown but still makes the American places and culture interesting and mildly exotic. Having left his hometown of Des Moines a decade before, Bill Bryson returns for his father’s funeral and borrows his mother’s car to travel the obscure towns of the US, intersecting with his past, to piece together Amalgam – his perfect composite of the ideal mid-western town. But instead of a feature film perfect place, he finds Anywhere USA, an endless, homogenised strip mall of chains and gas stations.
The highlights of this book are Bryson’s affectionate accounts of long family road trips led by his penny-pinching Dad, trying to economize on every request from his children whilst being systematic harangued from the back of the car to stop and visit every pricy tourist attraction and gift shop advertised on the ubiquitous billboards. As well as searing critiques of roadside establishments, Bryson helpfully advises on US travel matters including his six rules of public dining (1. Never eat in a restaurant that displays photographs of the food it serves) and the vagaries of choosing a motel. Grumpy, sarcastic and petulant in his complaints that everything has changed, Bill Bryson still conveys a grudging affection for his birth country and evokes his childhood with humour and pathos.
America Unchained by Dave Gorman – The King of PowerPoint tries to travel the US from coast to coast only using independent establishments and without setting foot in any chain establishments.
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich – Published in 2001 this is a journalist’s investigation into what it is like to survive as the working poor, cleaning, waiting tables and care work for minimum wage. Dark and sadly even more relevant today than when it was written.
Basically, you can travel the world via Bill Bryson. He dissects the UK in Notes from a Small Island, explores Australia (and the Big Lobster) in Down Under and relives his backpacking youth through Europe in Neither Here nor There.
The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
The real story of the original self-rescuing princess, a film and her scoundrel. Taken from her rediscovered diaries by the brilliant and mercurial Carrie and published just before her death in 2016. Beginning with her first cameo opposite Warren Beatty in Shampoo, though the iconic first Star Wars trilogy in which she becomes her most famous role, Princess Leia and on to other roles.
But the reason we are here is the decades-long chemistry between Fisher and her co-star Harrison Ford. This is no lurid account of the relationship or ‘Carrison’ as she called it way before Brad and Angelina were even famous. This book focuses more on the 19-year-old Carrie’s joy and insecurities in this pivotal relationship with an older married man, whilst coping with becoming a household name for playing Leia.
This book clearly signposts why Fisher was to become a sought-after Hollywood script editor with credits including Sister Act, Hook and the Star Wars prequels. The Princess Diarist shows Carrie’s writing burning bright and spiralling out of control. It is starkly clear that the poems and journal excerpts were written by a young insecure woman and are unpolished and raw but still fascinating. But read the book and let her tell the story with her own unique voice.
“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” ― Carrie Fisher
Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher – Semi biographical first novel tells what it’s like to have an overbearing movie star for a Mother and an inconvenient drug problem.
Bloodline by Claudia Gray – Princess Leia faces up to her family tree in this excellent Star Wars novel.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher – Carrie’s one-woman show and accompanying book is a guide to growing up and surviving in the glare of Hollywood celebrity. The book is great but watch the stand up to see her at her sarcastic best.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
A singular collaboration by a gothic comic and novel writer and the prolific creator of the Discworld. What possible better subject for this collision of horror and fantasy talent than Armageddon? Hilarious, sarcastic and poignant, Good Omens introduces us to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch and precisely how the world will end. Pitted against the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and many demons (and angels) are three children with a very special leader, a professional descendant and a Witchfinder Private.
But the real focus of this book is the centuries-old sparring between louche motorway designer and houseplant terroriser Crowley and fussy but helpful rare bookseller and fan of the gavotte Aziraphale. The recent TV adaptation with fabulous casting is definitely worth watching but the book is written with such imagination that you won’t need the visuals to step into this end of the world tale.
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett – Principally a story of kingly intrigue but eclipsed by the manipulations of the Lancre witches. This book stars the incomparable Granny Weatherwax, mistress of ‘headology’ and doyenne of witches and the formidable but obscene Nanny Ogg.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – Another fully realised and utterly immersive Earth-in-peril fantasy, written with wry wit and boundless humanity.
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
This magical book goes back so far in my reading life, I can’t remember having not read it. Now, this is the third of the Moomins series but my favourite by far, still emotive but lacking the quiet melancholy of later books. The way Tove Jansson conjures up Moomin Valley with her writing and exquisitely drawn maps and illustrations makes the story leap off the page and into your imagination.
Moomintroll and his friends, Sniff and Snufkin experience the perils of sleeping in a hat belonging to a Hobgoblin, discover the electrifying Hattifatteners on their island and learn how to create a jungle inside their own Moominhouse. The icy and forbidding Groke drives the spooneristic Thingumy and Bob to seek refuge with the Moomins, but they carry a valuable secret with them. Exciting and adventurous whilst being calm and comforting, Finn Family Moonmintroll has not aged one bit since it was published. Wonderfully lyrical, funny and philosophical adventures all rolled into one little children book.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – Sophia and her grandmother go about their day on a small Norwegian island. But there is so much more to this book than that. Still and quiet and perfect.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol – Like the Moomins, the iconic illustrations are forever in your head from this story.