Two Senior Editors At Penguin Share Their Reading List

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.
E. Foley and B. Coates – Liz and Beth – are the writers behind the number-one bestseller, Homework for Grown-Ups: Everything You Learnt at School and Promptly Forgot. Their latest book, What Would Boudicca Do? Everyday Problems Solved by History's Most Remarkable Women, was published in September to great fanfare, including a glowing review from the equally remarkable Olivia Colman, who described it as "a boost", reminding us all that "if these amazing women did it, we certainly can".
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
When they’re not writing together, "work wives" Liz and Beth both work as senior editors at Penguin Random House. They first met 18 years ago as editorial assistants keen to try new things. "We did a GCSE Italian night class together – we’ve done some pretty odd things over the years," laughs Liz. "Those weird projects eventually developed into writing books though," she explains. What Would Boudicca Do? is their fifth, with a sixth in the works.
"Obviously we were both total feminists before, but we’ve become a lot more engaged since writing this book. It’s really lovely when people send us pictures of it displayed in bookshops in such good company," says Beth of the book’s feminist call to arms. Women need to "make much more noise" when it comes to their achievements, she says. "That’s the big message we had from the start," adds Liz.
What are you reading right now?
Liz: I have just started Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is about Briseis – Achilles' concubine – during the Trojan war. I studied classics so I’m really looking forward to reading how she approaches it, and everyone keeps recommending it to me.
Beth: Right now it’s Freefall by Jessica Barry. I love a good thriller and that’s what this is. We read two or three manuscripts a week for work so when I get into bed I want to read something really hooky.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
When and where do you like to read?
Beth: I read in bed but I save up my pleasure reads for holidays. I’m really strict about not taking anything for work on holiday with me but also I do all of my reading for work on a Kindle to keep the two separate.
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Liz: I use my Kindle for pretty much everything, except in bed, or the bath.
Beth: I’ve never bought a book on the Kindle.
Liz: Really? It’s a bit different and I do sometimes feel regret about it. I suppose part of the reason I like the Kindle is if I didn’t have it on holiday with me, I’d be nervous I’d run out of books to read. We always go on holiday to the same place and we’re members of the local library for that exact reason, as it means I don’t have to pack any of them.
Beth: We’re going away as a family over Christmas and we’ll definitely get a list together beforehand so we know who’s taking what book and we can swap when we’re away. One time we were on holiday and my husband had run out of books to read so my mum ripped the paperback she was reading in half so she could give him the first half of it when she was finished. I quite like that about paperbacks – you don’t feel as guilty about folding over the corners!
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Do you fold over corners instead of using a bookmark?
Beth: I do. Guilty as charged.
Liz: I don’t do that but when I was a kid I used to tear off the corners and eat them.
How do you choose what to read next?
Liz: We like to read the hot books, the ones that there’s a buzz around but it’s mainly through recommendations, like I will read something that Beth tells me is good.
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Beth: Although I know fewer people are reading it, I will look at the review pages in the weekend papers and if there’s something that keeps coming up again and again I’ll read it. We’re really lucky to be plugged into the industry because you just get a sense of what’s good from what people are talking about.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Beth: I’m going to champion my little local bookshop here in Peckham, it’s called Review Bookshop and it’s really good. It’s very eccentric – it’s tiny with lots of strange, awkward spaces. Katya who works there is just amazing and they do a really good job of showcasing interesting, unusual stuff.
Liz: The Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace. We did an event there and they were amazing. They’re a really brilliant independent shop. We both love Foyles as well.
Beth: Actually, I think Waterstones is brilliant now too.
Favourite magazines?
Beth: I really like Granta. I think my dad bought me a subscription to it years ago. More than a decade later, I’m still buying it. It’s lovely.
Liz: It’s great for new writing. I read things online mainly, like Refinery29 and The Pool. I used to collect Empire and I had them all numbered but my mum threw them away!
When did your love of books begin? Were you bookworms from a young age?
Beth: Yes. My mum is a massive reader and she writes as well so as children [books were] what we were given the whole time. I have this vivid memory of finishing my first book, which was Watership Down, and feeling this huge sense of achievement. From then on I was completely hooked. My 6-year-old is at that point now and she’s so happy about it – she’ll come down the stairs and shout, "I finished it!" My kids are constantly asking me to buy them things and I almost always say no but when it comes to books I say, "You can ask me about them whenever you like." It’s such a joy for them and that feeling of independence is just great.
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Liz: It is, isn’t it? It’s like you’ve opened the door to another universe.
Beth: I used to love those Enid Blyton books, like The Magic Faraway Tree, and I still sort of remember that feeling of escaping to an imaginary world.
Liz: C. S. Lewis was my favourite. That was the first thing I remember having a Harry Potter-esque frenzy about. I used to order, collect, read and reread them.
Beth: Did you do that thing of going into wardrobes and just wishing?
Liz: No!
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Are there any books you read on a regular basis?
Liz: Generally, I don’t like watching films I’ve seen before or reading the same books again but there are some, like Middlemarch – I’ll read that every decade.
Beth: There are a couple of things, like The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read recently because I first read it as a teenager. Reading it again was a totally different experience.
Liz: That’s the thing – when you come back to things you read when you were younger, you have a whole different register to draw from.
Beth: Yeah, exactly. The thing I hadn’t realised the first time was how sexy [The Handmaid’s Tale] is. It’s very thrilling. I read it as a beach read and it worked as that too. It really holds up, it’s just brilliant. I can’t wait for the sequel next year. People love to dress up as Handmaids in our office, any excuse!
When you’re not writing books, you’re editing them. What, in your opinion, makes a good book?
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Liz: It’s a good question. It’s so different depending on the book and what it’s trying to achieve or give to the reader.
Beth: I think it’s that proper connection – things that you read and can’t get out of your head. A book I read a couple of years ago, A Little Life, made me really angry and my husband kept asking me to stop reading it because I was so furious about it. It tells the story of these four male friends and one of them suffers the most terrible abuse so you’re put in this weird voyeuristic position where you know they’re going to reveal what it was but you almost don’t want to know because then you’re part of it. So that’s one of those ones that I sort of didn’t enjoy but it’s an amazing book because you’re totally hooked; I still get a bit angry thinking about it now.
Liz: I suppose you could say it’s books that have a powerful effect on you or make you cry, or make you angry, or make you completely admire the sentences.
Beth: But that can happen in so many different ways that it’s a really difficult question to answer.
Liz: Yeah, it’s so subjective.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Which books have made you cry this year?
Liz: The last thing that I can remember that really, really upset me properly and had me in floods of tears was actually a few years ago – it was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I don’t think that’s necessarily how most people talk about that book but it completely destroyed me.
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Beth: This year I read William Boyd’s Any Human Heart for the first time. Someone recommended it to me and it made me cry but in quite a nice way. The other book that got me was The Road – I read that on a beach and was just weeping, weeping and weeping from it. And then we published a book called When Breath Becomes Air recently about a surgeon who gets lung cancer in his late 30s. He wrote this beautiful memoir but he died before he could finish it and the bit that really got me was his wife’s epilogue. It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking bit of writing.
Liz: I love a good cry from a book.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
Liz: This is a tricky one but we’d pick Mary Beard as one of them, The Handmaid’s Tale and How to Build a Girl, because we love that as well.
Beth: It’s impossible to choose three but I really do keep pressing The Handmaid’s Tale into people’s hands. What’s so surprising about it is despite the amount of copies it’s sold there are still a lot of people who haven’t read it – my husband had never even heard of it!
Liz: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is another one that would be great for anyone.
Beth: It’s just a must-read book. And it’s incredibly accessible.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Where did the idea for What Would Boudicca Do? come from?
Beth: It was a direct response to the presidential elections in America. We were obviously appalled but really moved and stirred by all the women's marches that came straight afterwards and the placards about nasty women and how people were taking it back.
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Liz: It started out being called The Book of Nasty Women.
Beth: Our first idea was to write mini biographies of nasty women throughout history and just celebrate them and then we had lunch with our editor and she came up with this idea of pushing it a step further and linking it with modern dilemmas. It was the phrase "What Would Beyoncé Do?" that led us to the title, What Would Boudicca Do? Boudicca was always our ultimate nasty woman.
Liz: Boudicca in the book is on sticking up for yourself and then we have Mae West on body positivity, Emily Dickinson on FOMO... that was the thing that unlocked it for us and made it a bit different.
The book contains lots of pearls of wisdom, what’s your favourite quote?
Beth: There’s a brilliant quote from Mae West: "A curve is the loveliest distance between two points." I love that. Dorothy Parker has some great ones too: "It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard." She would have been great on Twitter!
Liz: I always think Emily Dickinson would have been amazing on Instagram because obviously she wrote poetry, had a beautiful garden and did a lot of baking.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Which female authors do you think deserve a bigger audience today?
Liz: There’s an amazing Japanese writer who does short stories and odd novels that are very dark and creepy and who is very good on the female experience. Her name is Yoko Ogawa.
Beth: Karen Russell is an American short story writer and she is just brilliant. She does these Angela Carter-esque dark fairy tales that always have a real edge to them. Her book St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is amazing – great title too. She’s very weird but has a singular voice that is very readable. Then there’s another writer called Elanor Dymott, who we publish, who wrote this book Every Contact Leaves a Trace. She got a lot of attention at the time we published it but it should have been a bestseller because it’s such a satisfying read. Her new book is called Slack-Tide and it’s coming in January and again, it deserves a really wide readership. She’s an excellent writer.
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Which book will you be giving for Christmas?
Beth: I’ve got a stack of Sally Rooney’s Normal People for everyone.
Liz: I’m going to be giving Circe by Madeline Miller and a Ruth Ware one called The Death of Mrs Westaway that’s a really good Christmas read. And Cressida Cowell has a new The Wizards of Once book my son is waiting for. She’s amazing – she did How to Train Your Dragon.
Elizabeth and Beth’s Reading List
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Freefall by Jessica Barry
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Circe by Madeline Miller
The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware
The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell
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