Susie Steiner’s Bookshelf

Where’s your bookcase located and what does it look like?
In the lounge, floor to ceiling and not nearly enough capacity. They’re coming in at double the rate they’re going out of the house. We keep on building more, but I do wonder where it will end. There are books on window ledges, on the floor, in boxes…

What kind of books will definitely not be found in your bookcase?
Romance, non-fiction (I try, but fail. It’s fiction all the way for me). Books in which children are murdered/abused/abducted (with the exception of A Child in Time, by Ian McEwan, Room by Emma Donoghue and The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich). It has to be exceptionally well done for me to get on board with child as victim. I’m also not into graphic violence – I’m all about the puzzle, not the bludgeon.

What author have you discovered and loved recently?
I’m a late convert to Anita Brookner, discovering her last year. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. I started with Look at Me, which is extraordinary. She does lonely, excluded women (usually writers) like no one else – people whose exclusion forces them into the role of observer, when they’d much rather be participant. So writing as the booby prize, essentially. I moved straight from that to Hotel du Lac and thought it even more perfect.

Where is your favourite place to read?
Bed, propped by numerous pillows.

Can books change lives?
I’m not sure they can change lives, but they can comfort at critical points in life. I think at times when I’ve felt most lost, books have offered terrific solace. In my late teens, on an especially miserable gap year, I discovered the Victorians – novels about women who were at odds with society or were thwarted by what was expected of them. I didn’t feel at all distant from these heroines – Isabelle Archer in Portrait of a Lady, say, or Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda – but rather passionately identified with them. I became monomaniacal, reading all of EM Forster, all of Hardy etc. I realise this makes me sound like an arse.

If so, which one changed yours?
Kate Atkinsons’s Case Histories, the first of the Jackson Brodie novels, was the inspiration for Missing, Presumed, my first Manon Bradshaw novel. I loved all four in Atkinson’s detective series – both for the stories and at sentence level. They’re beautiful books but also have a great sense of fun. Her playfulness is something I try to adopt in writing the Manon novels. What’s the point if it’s not FUN? I’m very susceptible to books that make me laugh.

What’s the book you’d choose as your Desert Island read?
War and Peace, which I’ve never read. I loved Anna Karenina, even the farming bits, so I think I’ll enjoy The Big One.

What book did you give last as a present and to whom?
I’m giving everyone Midwinter Break by Bernard Maclaverty. I don’t understand why he hasn’t won a ginormo prize. It’s a masterclass in ‘show don’t tell’. Quiet, understated and thoughtful. Just how I like them.

What are you reading now?
The Only Story by Julian Barnes. It’s my first of his and I’m marvelling at the technical skill of it. He moves from idealistic first person narrative, at the start of the love affair, into sad second person as the relationship tarnishes and it’s the most masterful key change: from major to minor.

What are your top ten books?
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
The Master, Colm Tóibín
Middlemarch, George Eliot
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor
The Regeneration Trilogy, Pat Barker
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
Headlong, Michael Frayn

It’s kind of agony compiling this list, because why ten? Also, collectively they give a strange impression. I’m not constantly sitting with a monocle to my eye reading Turgenev. I’ve never re-read Headlong, but I remember it made me howl with laughter and that seals its place in my heart. There are tons of books that have given me immense pleasure at the time, that I will have pressed into friends’ hands but which are lost to my early-onset dementia.

What’s your most treasured book on your bookcase?
I’m unsentimental about books as objects, which is ironic given the state of our bookshelves. I’ve had to largely abandon physical books because the font size is too small for my failing eyesight. I read on kindle and it hasn’t dented my enjoyment one bit. In fact, I’d say it’s increased my purchasing and consuming of books, which can only be a good thing. I’m very grateful that a simple piece of technology has kept me reading, despite encroaching blindness. It’s backlit, so you can read in the middle of the night without waking anyone, and there’s no patting about for reading glasses. What’s not to like? I’m bewildered by the ‘real books are better’ brigade. My mum wrote a psychology book called Understanding Your One Year Old, which is full of anecdotes about the three of us as babies. It’s out of print, so perhaps I’m sentimental about that one.