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Newsletter No. 5

And like the famous perfume by Chanel, we hope they keep getting better and better. If you're new – and 10 of you are – welcome, we're so pleased to have you. And for our faithful regulars thanks for sticking with us. We're attempting a new thing with the pod, which is to release episodes a bit more frequently – I hesitate to say every week, but we might manage three a month instead of our usual two. And so out today a new Bookshelf episode – where we talk about the books we're picking and choosing for ourselves outside of book club. We had a lot of fun hashing out our feelings on 'guilty pleasure' fantasy and I come up with an idea for 'reading offsetting' – like carbon offsetting, but you do it with your reading material. It basically turns your guilty pleasures into guilt-free ones and I'm very pleased with the concept. Listen in for more. Also this week I had a birthday and a delicious new stack of books that I couldn't wait to read. And so I did a bit of book-diving, my new term for book speed-dating where you basically get your stack and read a bit from each in turn to see how you like them. I was enjoying myself hugely – it felt like browsing in my favourite bookshop but instead I was at home in bed – but of course one book managed to lure me away from all the others and for more on that see below.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

I once took my children to Butterfly World, a new venture near where my parents live in Hertfordshire. One day the owners planned to build a giant glass dome that would be a thing of wonder but for now they had a large-ish greenhouse filled with plants and butterflies. My children walked about with their arms outstretched, hoping a butterfly would land on them. A stern woman in a green uniform was circulating, and delivered a short, pointed talk about how the butterflies could be easily damaged and that we must not even think about trying to touch them. She left and my children and I sat on a little low wall next to a tray of fruit. Suddenly my three-year old daughter screamed. A large black butterfly had landed on her arm. My instinct was to flick it off immediately and I reached out a hand but then I remembered the butterfly guardian and looked up to find the slightly anguished but also sympathetic gazes of the other parents present (most of the crowd if I’m honest). There was a collective suspended moment – what would I do? And then, mercifully, the butterfly decided to fly off on its own. And although it was a hot day and my husband wasn’t there because he travelled a lot – still does – and like all my outings with the children when they were young I was stressed-out and anxious the whole time – and although butterfly world is no more because of course with such wildly impractical plans the owners ran out of money and it had to close – I still remember that day incredibly fondly, a day full of sunshine and my daughter who wanted to touch a butterfly and in the end did.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny is full of small incidents like this, with characters who seem like people you know or once met. The book follows the course of seventeen years in the life of Jane, a schoolteacher whose job brings her to Boyne City, Michigan. She falls in love with the handsome and charismatic Duncan only to discover that he is the local Lothario and she is constantly encountering women he has slept with. His pretty and accomplished ex-wife Aggie is a particular source of tension being still on such friendly terms with Duncan that he regularly mows her lawn. Gradually Jane gets to know more of the residents and becomes a part of small-town life.

It's a book that initially kept wrong-footing my expectations, used as I am to things of a far darker bent. But this book is a darkness-free zone and once I felt sure it wasn't a trick I put my wariness aside and settled down to enjoy myself. It's not that bad things don't happen, for they do, and one of the very pleasing things about this novel was the way in which Heiny captures the ordinary dramas of life. It's more there's a mindset here that tends to see things in a positive light and not to look too closely at anything that might disturb that viewpoint. At one point, for example, Jane admits to feeling exhausted and trapped in her role as the family breadwinner (for Duncan's woodworking business probably only just about breaks even, so lackadaisical is his approach to work) but this doesn't then translate in to a chain of anger and resentment, difficult conversations and perhaps even life-changes. Instead the thought is acknowledged and then let go as Jane focuses on things she does enjoy. 

I read Heiny's previous book Standard Deviation a couple of years ago and while I enjoyed it, I found it a bit frustrating that the characters didn't really change or develop (and click through if you're curious to read my review over on the Gram). I had less of a sense of that here, and liked it more. There's much more of a feeling of lives lived – at one point nearing the end of the book I had a moment of sadness knowing I would have to leave Jane and her friends and relations behind – but I think Heiny gives you enough that you can continue to imagine how they all go on just fine. I should also mention that Heiny's writing is full of brilliant sharp, occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy; she's particularly great at set pieces like dinner parties or, in this book, a disastrous wedding. 

If you have a heart of darkness like mine you might find yourself mildly resentful that these characters get to live their lives untroubled by worries about climate change or pandemics or racism or political unrest, that they mostly all get happy endings and enjoyable sunsets. Would it be good for book club? I’m not sure – it’s well-written, likely to please everyone and criticising it feels like punching a kitten. But if you are after a warm hug of a read (and post-lockdown, who isn't?) then I recommend this highly.

Buy Early Morning Riser from
New website for readers Audrey 

A couple of newsletters back I mentioned my general enchantment with Dublin City of Literature who run a city-wide book club every April. This year the book is Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, which brings me to another generally enchanting thing you might want to check out called Audrey. Audrey is a new online platform that allows readers to experience books through a series of virtual book rooms. When you enter the ‘room’ you have access to all kinds of delightful tangents surrounding the book. Beginning with specially commissioned illustrations you might move on to text about the characters, author interviews, discussion questions to reflect on, a Spotify playlist of music relating to the book, and suggestions for follow-on reads or related things to watch. Every book room is different. Of Leonard and Hungry Paul they write:

'This book is exceptional in that it has no conflict, no drama (not the kind we're used to, anyway) and no sex, but still manages to be utterly absorbing. It pulls you in, puts the kettle on, shows you a lovely time, and sends you on your way with some faith restored in the goodness of the world.

We chose Leonard and Hungry Paul for Audrey because it encourages us to slow down, reflect, and appreciate what's really important in life. Which makes it both timeless and extremely timely.’

Other books on their growing list include some we have covered on the pod, like divisive bestseller Where The Crawdads Sing (episode 69 for the debate on that one) and Christy Lefteri’s thoughtful and moving novel about Syrian refugees, The Beekeeper of Aleppo (episode 71). They also pleasingly have books I haven’t yet heard of (Saving Lucia by Anna Caught, The Art of the Body by Alex Allison) and ones I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t got around to yet (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong) and coming soon Japanese buzz-novel Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami.

I’ve loved exploring the Audrey site, which seems to me the very best combination of the digital world with the joys of reading printed books, and I’m slightly awed by the amount of love, thought and care they clearly put into each book room. You can browse on your own but you can also share the link and visit the book rooms with a friend, a nice idea for members of a book club, say. You won’t find spoilers for books you haven’t yet read, but you will get lots of material that will enhance your experience if you do read the book, or extend it if it’s one you read and enjoyed.

At the moment Audrey is currently in beta-testing and founder Rob Paul is keen for people to try it out and feedback with their thoughts. It’s completely free so if you find you have an idle moment have a browse and see what you think. It’s perfect for a quiet Sunday afternoon. And if you'd like to take part in some Audrey user-research Rob is keen to chat. Especially if you're a reader struggling to concentrate on books at the moment, or find yourself getting stuck scrolling instead of reading. You can email him here: (Note: They're developing the mobile version, but Audrey currently only works on larger screens at the moment, and for me it seems to work best in Google Chrome)

What to listen to:

Of course, our latest episode, in which Kate gets tied up in existential knots over Sarah J. Maas and Crescent City: House of Earth and Blood, and we consider the parallels between this 800-page fantasy bonkbuster and War and Peace. We explore the idea of ‘reading offsetting’ whereby we balance our guilty pleasures with books more worthy of our time. Laura rediscovers the Queen of Fantasy Ursula Le Guin through her Western Shore trilogy and we remember why we think her books are so amazing. Kate pronounces Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri her new favourite book of the year. And we end with an excursion into Arctic landscapes with Christiane Ritter and A Woman in the Polar Night and consider moving to Svalbard where apparently you don’t need a visa! Future podcasts may come from a small hut in the Arctic hinterland.

What Kate is reading:

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld has been sitting beside my bed for a while now, waiting for its turn and two things are now prompting me to get to it. 1) It won Australia's Stella Prize this week and 2) The library will shortly be wanting it back.

What Laura is reading:

Laura is halfway through The Library by Susan Orlean and enjoying it immensely. It’s a rich read that takes the fire that destroyed much of the LA Central Library collections in 1986 as its entry point into a wide-ranging discussion of libraries and their significance in life, art and history. In honour, Laura hit up the Vancouver Public Library this rainy Saturday and picked up The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnellp Hornby and Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, neither of which she’d heard of before entering the library.

Thanks so much for subscribing and we hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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