What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in November

Katherine Rundell, author

I’ve been reading a superb and terrifying book: Fire Weather, by John Vaillant, which has recently won the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction. It’s the story of locals, lawmakers and firefighters, confronting a fire in Fort McMurray, Canada so intense it created its own weather systems: lightning, hurricanes, storms. It’s an account of what is to come: houses full of flammable plastic, soil dried out by climate change. The book is chilling, especially in the light of the UN’s recent announcement that that we are currently on track for 2.9 degrees of global warming – but it reads with pace and flair and a rich, furious clarity.

• Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell has been named the 2023 Waterstones book of the year


Emily, Guardian reader

I’ve been reading Big Swiss by Jen Beagin. It’s a comedy that follows the story of Greta, an audio transcriber for a sex therapist who becomes infatuated with one of the clients whose sessions she is transcribing. It is a very funny book that is hard to put down. There are lots of subplots, twists and laugh-out-loud moments.


John Self, critic

Brilliant new novels had been thin on the ground in my last few months of reading, and then came Mike McCormack’s This Plague of Souls. A spiritual if not literal sequel to his multi-award-winning Solar Bones, this one features another man alone – Nealon – trying to figure out where his wife and son are after he’s released from prison. But if it was the plot turns that grabbed me – a hunt for a bugging device, an abduction, a descending national emergency – it’s the strangeness that has stayed with me. It’s a book about how societies, families and individuals fit together and pull apart, and it’s been resonating in my head since I finished it.

Iris Murdoch.
Iris Murdoch. Photograph: PA

I also had the pleasure recently of reading, and sometimes rereading, a bunch of Iris Murdoch’s best books. Murdoch’s books are all antics and capers, people falling in and out of love, fast-paced and frequently very funny – and intellectual, too, of course. “Literature is fun, literature entertains,” she said – and boy, did she deliver. If you haven’t read her before, I particularly recommend A Severed Head, which is not only one of her shortest novels, but has an utterly twisted plot where pretty much every pair of characters gets off with one another, as well as a samurai sword and an unexpected delivery in a box. It seems perfectly apt that Murdoch later adapted it into a West End comedy.

At the end of the year, fewer new books coming out means I can delve contentedly into the backlists. I’ve been drumming my heels in merriment at the early novels of Michael Frayn, who’s best known for later work like Headlong and Spies. What I found is that he’s not only reliably funny, but more varied than I expected. In Sweet Dreams a man who dies in a car crash goes to heaven and ends up helping to manage things on Earth, including designing the Alps. In The Trick of It an academic – almost by accident – ends up marrying an author whose books he teaches. And Towards the End of the Morning is a comedy both about working in a newspaper office and how life happens while you’re making other plans. A sobering thought: I think I’ll read another book to take my mind off it.


Matilda, Guardian reader

I’ve just read My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Set in Lagos, away from the dreadful cold we are experiencing here in the UK, it is fresh and funny, albeit slightly morbid – the story follows a woman whose sister keeps killing her boyfriends. It’s something different to the ordinary crime thriller, and the writing doesn’t disappoint.