What To Read This Autumn

23rd August 2013

What to read if you’re a smug married who secretly misses the single life...

Bridget’s back. Seventeen years after we first fell for her, Helen Fielding returns to chronicle life and love in London through the eyes of a well-meaning but not always wise woman.

Now in her late 40s, Bridget will be navigating a very different world; after all nobody needs 1471 with an iPhone. She will be reacting to the coalition government (always a New Labour fan, Bridget believed they stood for ‘kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela, as opposed to braying, bossy men having affairs’), grappling with Twitter and Facebook, and learning the hard way not to text when drunk.

Although preview copies are under lock and key, we know that Bridget will still be drinking too much, still trying to squeeze into the next size down, and still dealing with ‘the boy’ – but who is the boy? Mark Darcy or Daniel Cleaver (Fielding has revealed only that they will be featuring), or a new love interest? Or perhaps a son; in which case, who is the father?

After one sequel and two films, critics might ask why we should still care about Bridget? Haven’t we moved past the era of neurotic women, relationship and diet-obsessed women? Isn’t it all a bit dated? Except that Bridget was more than a cliché; she was riotously funny and gave voice to thousands. Whether or not Fielding should have left Bridget in the 90s, this is surely the book that everyone will be talking about this autumn.

Mad About the Boy, Helen Fielding, Jonathan Cape, 10 Oct

What to read if you want to be able to sound like a literary expert…

Longlisted for the Man Booker prize, Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel has already been critically praised. But we all know that the experts sometimes rave about incomprehensible books (truthfully, how many people have actually got through all of Wolf Hall?) so it’s refreshing to find one that is also marvellously entertaining. Almost English follows Marina, an awkward 1980s teenager living with her eccentric Hungarian relatives and her listless mother, as she packs in her old life for a fancy boarding school. Naturally, it is full of dreadful Sloaney types, and most of the novel is about Marina’s fear that her worlds will collide There’s also a family mystery to solve, and the matter of the fate of Marina’s father. It’s very funny – the Hungarians, to whom everything is “von-darefool,” are vividly described – and poignant; you desperately want Marina to find her place. Highbrow though it may be, Almost English is also very enjoyable.

Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson, Mantle, £16.99, out now

What to read if you think your own family is complicated...

Done right, a saga about the immigrant experience can offer an unparalleled window on to the unknown, for example Brick Lane, or Small Island. Journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s debut novel, which follows three generations of a Sikh family in Wolverhampton, certainly belongs in that category.

His acclaimed 2008 memoir, The Boy With the Topknot, told his own Sikh family’s story of arriving in Britain – again, in Wolverhampton. It was a touching tale, focused on his family’s largely-concealed battle with mental illness, but in his first work of fiction, Sanghera has by no means simply recycled the facts.

Instead, Marriage Material is set in a corner shop and follows sisters who choose very different paths, at a time when the National Front is thriving. Sanghera looks at how tradition and community can be both stifling and comforting, and studies the culture clash between immigrants and their better adjusted offspring. From a skilled writer who couldn’t know his subject better, this is an unputdownable and intelligent novel.

Marriage Material, Sathnam Sanghera, William Heinemann, 26 Sept

What to read if you want to know what a scandal feels like…

In November, it will be 50 years since John F Kennedy was assassinated. While JFK is remembered for many things – Cuban Missiles, race relations, soaring speeches – he’s also remembered for his love life. But if we know plenty about Jackie and Marilyn, we perhaps know less about Mimi Alford, who arguably paved the way for Monica Lewinsky. As a naive 19-year-old she took an internship in the White House and, naturally – well, for a pretty and well-bred young woman – attracted JFK’s attention.

If her memoir, which is shortly out as a paperback, is to be believed, it took just four days for him to fall for her, and 18 months for their affair to end. It’s an unsettling portrait, given the clear age and power gap – apparently, he wanted to be called Mr President even at intimate moments – and it was decades before her secret came out. As a snapshot of power and lust, it’s a fascinating if slightly unpleasant tale.

Once Upon a Secret, Mimi Alford, Arrow, 7 November

What to read if you want a taste of a glamorous life...

Before the wannabes of Made in Chelsea, before Paris Hilton and Jackie O, there were the Mitford sisters. To this day their names are synonymous with the word socialite; women who lived wild, rebellious and often shocking lives. Dubbed Bright Young Things by the tabloids in the 1920s, they were the subject of endless gossip.

Nancy, the eldest, was a novelist, the author of Love in a Cold Climate. Although her personal life was complex – her first husband was an unrepentant philanderer – her scandals were nothing compared to those of her sisters. Diana married British fascist Oswald Mosley and even after a spell in prison remained loyal to Adolf Hitler, while Unity developed a close friendship with the Nazi leader and attempted suicide days after war broke out. Meanwhile Jessica eloped during the Spanish Civil War and became a passionate communist.

Leaving aside their questionable views, there is no denying that the Mitfords were the toasts of the social scene. In this book (a fun alternative to Pippa’s party tips), Lyndsy Spence, who runs the online community The Mitford Society, offers ‘a Mitford A-Z for modern life’. These really were women who knew how to be talked about.

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life, Lyndsy Spence, History Press, £12.99, out now

What to read if you want to impress your guests...

Apparently, cupcakes are over. For years, it’s been all about the bite-sized baked delight, marketed as the perfect, health-conscious treat (small, so in theory calorie controlled). But every bubble – even one that requires only eggs, flour, sugar and butter – must burst. Hoping to launch a new edible trend are the Meringue Girls, friends and chefs from Hackney, with their colourful and equally cute meringue kisses. Having started with a blog, their first cookbook advises on everything from basic mixture to piping technique. It’s full of useful tips – who knew that you could use leftover meringue to make profiteroles? – and intriguing recipes, such as a Middle Eastern pavlova that uses Greek yoghurt, and seasonally themed ideas for Halloween and Christmas. My own choice is their honeycomb, chocolate and salted peanut version. In cooking, there’s something to be said for originality, and selling the meringue as the new cupcake will certainly mark you out.

Meringue Girls Cookbook, Alex Hoffler & Stacey O’Gorman, Square Peg, 12 Sept

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