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Ask a Bookseller: Miriam from Sevenoaks Bookshop

Bookshops are the very best places to go for book recommendations – and booksellers are the friendliest, most knowledgeable of readers!

Miriam from Sevenoaks Bookshop in Kent has joined us to answer your questions and share her favourite picks.

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I feel like I should read more non-fiction but don’t know where to begin. I’m interested in people’s lives, history and science, but not in sports or celebrities! Can you recommend a good non-fiction book to get me started? – Lisa

A recent – and well-deserved – bestseller is Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli covers seven topics in 78 pages. Scientific theories – like the cosmos and conscientiousness – are explained in clear and compelling terms. Physics can be beautiful and awe-inspiring!

If you’re looking for something that explores the challenges facing our lives in the future, you might like Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari asks if we can keep up with the technological advances of the 21st century as intelligence is uncoupled from consciousness. Are humans becoming units of information and algorithms, as the machines we build can ‘know’ our feelings and influence our decisions as voters, consumers and lovers? It’s a witty and insightful look at our essentially unknowable future.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

I loved Naomi Alderman’s The Power and was so excited that it won the Baileys Prize! I'd love to read more books like that – could you recommend some? – Stacey

If you haven’t already read it, a great place to start would be The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, which has recently been serialised on television. It’s set in a 21st century American dystopia where males are restored to the traditional role of warriors and females are divided into uniformed classes based on household functions – 'wives', 'breeders' and 'servants'. In this world governed by right wing religiously fundamentalist men, infertility is a big problem.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Life feels a bit serious at the moment. Can you recommend some light-hearted books to take my mind off things? – Alex

I’ve got two recommendations which I think you’ll love. First up is Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff, which is an extremely funny account of the life of an unhappy young ad-man who feels he needs life advice from the uncomplicated canine companions he is dog sitting. In a sub-let apartment in NYC, with a soul-destroying job and with a comically ill-suited girlfriend, Jonathan depends on the dogs as he wonders how ‘normal’ people cross the huge gulf between childhood and adulthood. This satirical rom-com fizzes with memorable one-liners.

Another book I loved is Dead Lions by Mick Herron, which is a wickedly clever send-up of the classic British spy novel, and winner of the 2013 Gold Dagger Award. At Slough House a collection of washed up MI5 spies while away what’s left of their failed careers. They would do anything, even collaborate with each other, to get back in the action! There’s a wonderful cast of characters located in a darkly comic world of spooks and espionage, including the irascible Jackson Lamb who, with his cohorts, tangles with a deceased Cold war era spy Dickie Bow, a possible Soviet bogeyman and a sleeper cell in an unremarkable village location.

Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff

I love my local bookshop and think it would be an amazing setting for a novel – the staff are all so quirky (and so are the customers!). Are there any good books set in bookshops? – Denise

There are lots! But I’ve got two highlights for you. In The Little Paris Book Shop by Nina George we’re introduced to Monsieur Perdu, whose bookshop is on a barge-like river boat on the Seine. Accompanied by a first time novelist friend with writer’s block and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu sets off on a giddy adventure lurching along French canals to Provence. An array of characters are encountered and they all share engaging repartee on a variety of books. A love letter to life, love and books!

Meanwhile, in A Very Special Year by Thomas Montasser, Valerie finds herself unexpectedly in charge of her disappeared Aunt Charlotte’s bookshop. Real authors and titles are referenced as Valerie finds that she has the ‘magical’ ability to prescribe just the right book for each of her customers. When she finds an unfinished – and she assumes defective – book, also called A Very Special Year, it turns out to be telling her story…

The Little Paris Book Shop by Nina George

Help - I’m stuck in a reading rut! What’s the most original and innovative novel you’ve read recently to inspire me? – Uzo

Hands down the most dazzling novel I’ve read recently is Neverhome by Laird Hunt, which depicts the American Civil war through the eyes of a female soldier. It was inspired by the true stories of some 400 women who disguised themselves to fight in America’s bloody war of the 1860s. Ash is a feisty farmer’s wife from Indiana who is aching for adventure but who also has private scores to settle and demons to put to rest. Arm-wrestling, cursing, fighting and shooting – passing as a man – come easily to Ash, while her matter-of-fact observations show with shattering clarity the carnage and chaos of war in a voice that perfectly captures the vernacular of the time.

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Our book group are looking for something great to read over the summer months. Any recommendations? – Lisa

Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is a rich, engrossing novel which would give you lots to talk about. A drunken kiss at a christening party leads to an affair that destroys two marriages and creates a reluctantly blended family, and we follow six children’s lives which are disrupted and intertwined in vignettes that span 50 years. As an adult, the main character Franny falls in love with a famous American writer. She tells him all about her dysfunctional family and a book he subsequently writes about it becomes a big hit. The plot thickens when the most disturbed sibling realises that some of his emotional life, his story, has been ‘stolen’. A fateful encounter ends in tragedy in a compelling novel of pain and suffering, wisdom and kindness, as Patchett observes but does not make moral judgements.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


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