If you listen to the podcast, you know that we often speculate about which books published in the U.K. make it to the U.S. and why. Well, we're finally getting some insight to this question from someone who actually lives and reads across the pond. Claire Handscombe is a British writer and host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Thanks, Claire, for sharing these great recs with us!
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There are so many great British books published every year. Frustratingly, though, few make it over to the U.S. Often, it’s only once a book has proved its mettle by becoming a runaway bestseller or being shortlisted for a prize that is known outside the U.K.—like the Man Booker Prize—that it makes its way across the seas. When it does, it can be months or years later than the U.K. edition, and usually in an Americanized form, and with a different cover.
I don’t know why so few books from the U.K. end up in American bookstores, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably because many books are deemed not to have wide enough appeal outside the U.K.—to be “too British.” This thinking seems to underestimate readers—and the point of reading, which is often to experience a culture and lifestyle different from your own. After all, British TV travels across the ocean with no problem: people loved Downton Abbey and still love The Great British Bake Off despite their mysterious British words and because of their very British sensibility. And my generation of Brits grew up reading Sweet Valley High, and we loved them, even though the U.S. school system and experience are in many ways completely different in the U.K. Readers can cope! They can use context clues! Give us a chance!
Help is at hand for the similarly frustrated, though. Whilst you may not be able to find all British books in U.S. bookstores, there are a few websites that can help: wordery.com has free worldwide delivery, as does bookdepository.com which, unlike Wordery, is owned by Amazon, if that matters to you. On the Amazon site itself, you may be able to find some of those books in the new and used pages. Or you can do what I did, and start a podcast: publicists will gladly send you ARCs. Probably don’t do that if you don’t have about ten hours spare per week and whole lot of passion, patience, and energy, though.
When I started the Brit Lit Podcast, it was in part as a response to how U.S.-centric I had become in my reading. I knew there had to be some great U.K. books that I’d never even heard of. And I was right. I’ve read some brilliant novels since I’ve been paying more attention to the U.K. book scenes, and here are a few of them:
Seventeen-year-old Lexie helps her dad run fan conventions, and she loves it. And then she meets a hot but arrogant young male author at one of them. . . . I loved this book. And it was so very British, with all the awkwardness of teenage love. Or, really, any love. (U.K. Only)
This is the story of Muzna Saleem, a British Muslim whose strict Pakistani parents are determined that she’s going to be a doctor, even though all she wants to do is write. But life gets much more complicated when she meets the hottest boy in her school, a fellow Muslim, who’s in the process of becoming radicalized. (U.K. Only)
I read this novel in January and immediately declared it “probably my best read of the year”. It’s about a Member of Parliament who is accused of rape, and it’s written from the point of view of his wife and the lawyer defending the woman he allegedly assaulted. The writing is masterful and the themes—consent, gaslighting, why we don’t believe women—are (sadly) more relevant than ever given the current #MeToo discussion.
It’s 1941 in London, and Emmeline Lake dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. She jumps at the chance to take what she thinks is a journalism job but turns out to be work assisting the redoubtable Acting Editress of a woman’s magazines. This book was just lovely, full of heart, and touching.
(Forthcoming in the US, July 3rd, 2018)
World War II does seem to be an endless source of inspiration for British authors. I loved this epistolary novel about five girls and women in an English village – from a villainous midwife to a slightly arrogant thirteen-year-old. It’s perfect for fans of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Spoiler alert: Eleanor Oliphant is actually the opposite of completely fine. But she tries to be, with meticulously planned life, deeply ingrained habits, and an arm’s length between her and other people. And then she makes an actual friend.
A young lonely woman, new to London, teams up with an elderly lady when their local outdoor swimming pool is threatened with closure. The Guardian recently termed the phrase “up lit”, for books which highlight the good in people, and this book is a great example of this new trend.
(Forthcoming in the U.S., July 10th, 2018)
Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing but really—let’s be honest—because of a West Wing obsession. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. Her debut novel, Unscripted, largely inspired by her own experience with fandom and celebrity crushes, is currently crowdfunding with British publisher Unbound.