So in no particular order, this week has been mainly dominated by: the sun, trying to get our hands on some last minute Zara sale piece (current status – still failing), our childrens’ end of term shenanigans, plenty of Step Up School Inner Circle thinking, an exciting project we have up our sleeves for your enjoyment come autumn, BBQs and tending to our gardens and our Facebook group in equal measure. We wouldn’t say we’re in perfect balance, but we can’t complain either.

We have also been chatting a lot about our favourite books.

Books are a big part of both of our lives. And we often spend as much time talking about plotlines and new literary discoveries, as we do about mentoring and networking skills. Ok, not exactly the same amount of time… we’re prone to exaggeration, but you get the gist.

If we had more time, we’d set up a virtual Step Up book club, because, for us, reading is the best kind of therapy: it’s intellectual nourishment, inspiration for our (mildly frazzled) souls, it’s escape and downtime too.

Phan reads on her Kindle and Alice flicks through actual pages, so like many things in work and in life, we approach things slightly differently, but the end goal (in this instance, a great read!) remains the same. And all of our plot sharing and character analysis absolutely transcends our obvious technological divide! Plus ça change…

So, with summer holidays on everyone’s minds, we thought it would be nice to change things up a bit with this newsletter. We’re calling it a dedication to our favourite pre-sleep pastime, and a chance for us to waffle on a bit about our much-loved reads – it is basically a homage to our pursuit of literary brilliance. And hopefully, it’ll give you some ideas for how to stuff your bookshelves or Kindle too. After all, what’s a holiday without a good read, eh?

So sit back, have a read through our thoughts and recommendations and then get yourself to your local bookshop pronto. Ok, click onto Amazon then. Whatever you’ve got to do to get your next book there and ready. Enjoy!

The Muse, Jessie Burton

Having devoured Burton’s first book, The Miniaturist, I bought The Muse immediately and was equally entranced. Using dual plot lines that weave themselves passionately together over the course of the novel, this book kept me gripped, transported me to bygone times in rural Spain and revealed plenty about 1960s London too.

I actually read the final chapters on the way to the airport several summers ago, and then felt bereft during my holiday as I’d left it in the glove compartment (I wasn’t driving!) and I couldn’t flick back and reread my favourite parts. It has a distinctly female skew and is about life and personal discoveries; sex and love. I adored it all, the artistry, the relationships and the constant changes of pace.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

Gosh, just thinking about this book again makes me all tingly and excited. Life After Life is a brilliantly sophisticated and utterly transformative novel that plays out how one’s life can be lived in so many permutations, all dependent on the tiny chinks of change that we pass through or inadvertently orchestrate. This is literally one woman’s life lived many different times. There are glorious explorations and depictions of rural British childhoods, next to violent and sensual female awakenings.

It is a literal – and literary – box of delights; at times desolate, at others joyful and enduringly profound.

Tender Is The Night, F Scott Fitzgerald

I became slightly obsessed with Fitzgerald during my latter university years – I was basically the ultimate student reading cliché. But, this passion for the classics (not just Fitzgerald, I went big on American authors for a long while) put me in great stead when it came to understanding the complexities of love and life – useful, seeing as I was a novice at both at the time!

I think Tender Is The Night is my favourite, mainly for its exploration of the 1920s, it’s litany of complex, and often downright intriguing, love affairs and its poignancy and warmth. Despite being relatively short, it is hugely explosive and exquisitely written. Other books that I worshipped, as an inquisitive 22-year-old include: John Steinbeck’s East Of Eden, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and J.D Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

With Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward became the first woman to win The National Book Award for Fiction (The US’s biggest literary prize) twice and boy did she deserve it. This is a dark, brilliantly observed look at family, memory, childhood and race that reverberates with Ward’s musically descriptive prose.

Set in present-day Mississippi, Jojo and his younger sister Kayla live with their grandparents and the occasional presence of their mother Leonie, a drug addict, who takes the children on a road trip to pick up their white father when he is released from prison.

I grew up in America and, later, studied literature at university; meaning I am a magnet for commentary on the American story (if Alice hadn’t nabbed Fitzgerald, he would have been my number one) as much as for brilliance with words. This book delivers on both counts. Don’t choose this book for pace. But if (like me) you inhale language, this is a must-read.

Middlesex, Jeffery Eugenides

It wouldn’t be my list if we didn’t talk about gender, so I’m covering that off right now with a book I come back to again and again. Continuing our theme of American fiction, Jeffery Eugenides’ multi-generational Bildungsroman tells the story of Cal who was “born twice: First, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Cal’s gender struggles – he/she is born with a rare type of male hermaphroditism that makes him/her chromosomally male, but physically female until puberty – are told in an acerbically funny and unpredictable story that explores family, adolescence and, of course, gender identity.

If you fall in love with Eugenides’ writing, next stop is The Marriage Plot swiftly followed by The Virgin Suicides.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

For my final Summer pick, I had chosen The Power by Naomi Alderman (if you haven’t already, read it right now!), but then I finished this gem and just had to share it.Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie was this year’s winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I loved this book for its thoroughly modern take on a classical tragedy – it’s a reimagining of Antigone.

Isma is the responsible older sister, finally free to study in the States as her twin siblings – who she has raised – come of age. The twins, Parvaiz and Aneeka have other ideas. Bitterly angry at his father’s treatment in Guantanamo, Parvaiz is recruited to Isil and heads to Syria for revenge. Meanwhile, Aneeka is devastated when she realises she might never see her twin again. A chance meeting with Eamonn – over-privileged son of the Home Secretary – leads to a passionate affair; complicated by Isma’s feelings, Aneeka’s faith and her plan to get the politician to help bring her errant brother home.

This web of family, religious, sexual and moral conflict culminates in perhaps the most dramatic ending of any book I’ve ever read.

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