Book Reviews

Book of the Month from The Hungerford Bookshop

If you’re stuck for something to read that will amuse, entertain, inform, give you pause for thought, scare out of your wits or merely pass a few hours in an agreeable way then we suggest you look no further than this monthly series of book reviews provided by Emma and Alex of our local multi-award-winning local reading emporium, the Hungerford Bookshop. The shop stocks an excellent range of new and second-hand books and what they don’t have on the shelves can normally ordered for next-day delivery. You can also visit their online shop by clicking here.

The most recent review is posted below – scroll down for earlier ones.

November 2018: The Golden Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching

It’s that time of year when thoughts start to turn to beautiful books to give as gifts. The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps reveals how the world came to be known, featuring a magnificent gallery of exceptionally rare hand-coloured antique maps, paintings and engravings, many of which can only be found in the author’s collection (and probably his father’s, who is a renowned book collector living locally).

The Golden Atlas takes you back to a world of darkness and peril, placing you on storm-lashed ships, frozen wastelands and the shores of hostile territories to see how the lines were drawn to form the shape of the modern world. It sits neatly next to his previous book The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps. The difficulty will be managing to give these gorgeous and engaging volumes away rather than coveting them for oneself.

Click here for more information and to order online from the Hungerford Bookshop.

October 2018: Pig: Tales from an Organic Farm by Helen Browning & Tim Finney

We have eaten a few times at Helen Browning’s fantastic country pub set in her farm in Bishopstone, so when her book, Pig came out it caught our interest.

In a frosty field on the longest night of the year, eight little piglets snuffle their first breaths and jostle close to their mother to feed. Over the six months that follow, Helen Browning and her partner Tim Finney record their adventures to show how pigs become the mischievous, competitive, intelligent and inventive animals that we know them to be. In doing so, they demonstrate why it is so crucial that the welfare of our farm animals – and equally, the way we manage our countryside – takes centre stage in the contemporary discussions around food, climate change and the loss of wildlife.

Lyrically told and drawing on a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, this is a timely and entrancing exploration of our relationship with farm animals, with nature, and with life itself. If you liked The Secret Life of Cows and A Shepherd’s Life, you’ll love this evocative and illuminating tale.

Helen will be talking to Tim Finney about this book at Hungerford Food Festival, this Sunday 12:15 in the Town Hall. We’ll be there as she signs copies afterwards and are offering  the book for the special price of £15 at the event. There’s a rumour that there will be some of her award-winning hot-dogs available to try too!

September 2018: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

To be excellent at one thing is something few of us manage to attain. To be excellent at two is rare indeed. The late Anthony Bourdain was just such a rare man: an award-winning, original and multi-talented chef; also a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Two of his books, Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, span both these parts of his life. What treats they both are.

A Cook’s Tour is a wonderful travel book, a whistle-stop tour of some expected (and less-expected) destinations for someone ‘in search of the perfect meal.’ In about 20 tapas-sized chapters we follow him from a long-awaited ceremony in Portugal to the hawker stands of Vietnam and from the horrors of a hotel room in Khmer Rouge country to the formal delights of a Japanese mountain inn. He gets stoned in Morocco, drunk in Russia, angry in California and sick in France. His meals include every part of a pig, a deadly puffer fish and the still-beating heart of a cobra. He makes his views know about everything from vegetarianism to Gordon Ramsey’s management style. Above all, he has a blast – and now and then leaves a little bit of gonzo mayhem in his wake.

The style matches the content to perfection. It’s darkly elegant, highly evocative and ever inquisitive. It’s thoughtful, engaging and often very funny. He never, of course, found the perfect meal: but this book comes pretty close to a perfect description of the quest for it.

August 2018: My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

I must be honest, it was the cover that first attracted me as I unpacked this slim novel for the bookshop. I am also always intrigued when an author I have never heard of enters into the ‘Penguin Modern Classics’ canon. So, as it was short, easy on the eye and seemingly suitably summery, I thought I’d give My Face for the World to See a try; and I am so glad I did!

At a Hollywood beach party in the 1950s a screenwriter rescues an aspiring young actress from a drunken suicide attempt in the Pacific ocean. Hayes depicts in razor-sharp prose the subsequent unfolding of their relationship. This is a disquieting novella that I found compelling and unsettling – a portrayal of damaged people acting out their lives in a town of hollow dreams. It has touches of Fitzgerald and Richard Yates.

If you are looking for a cheery beach read don’t go for this. But if you want something that is startlingly original and incredibly well-written, try this small masterpiece. I am rushing to read his other books now.

July 2018: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

This is a tense, evocative and beautiful portrait of love and deceit in the Champagne country of the Marne (which was made into a memorable film starring Kenneth More and Susannah York).

Set in the late 1950s, the events centre on the faded elegance of Les Oeillets, with its bullet-scarred staircase and serene garden bounded by high walls, which becomes the setting for a series of emotional struggles. These involve Eliot, the charming Englishman; sophisticated Mademoiselle Zizi, hotel patronne, and Eliot’s devoted lover; and beautiful 16-year-old Joss who, with her younger siblings, unexpectedly becomes part of the household.

I re-read this recently and the sultry weather brought back memories of this wonderful coming-of-age story. It’s beautifully written and based on a real episode in Godden’s life. It’s incredibly atmospheric and like all good books, stays in your mind long after reading. Along with Dodie Smith’s  I Capture the Castle, and Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer – also strongly recommended that I will look forward to sharing with my daughter when she is older.

June 2018: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Berlin in the 1930s was a city of contradictions: decadent and yet deeply conservative; cosmopolitan and yet xenophobic; full of conspicuous wealth and desperate poverty. Few English-speaking writers have chronicled this heady time and place better than Isherwood, whose stories in his collection Goodbye to Berlin created the memorable Sally Bowles and formed the inspiration for the film Cabaret.

In Mr Norris Changes Trains, published in 1935, Isherwood creates a no less memorable character, the unscrupulous, charming, cultured and faintly depraved Arthur Norris. The novel ranges from high farce to political intrigue and includes a delightful cast of supporting characters including a villainous secretary, a love-sick German baron, a local Communist leader, a hard-bitten English journalist and an elderly Berlin landlady. All is witnessed through the eyes of the long-suffering narrator, William Bradshaw, a thinly disguised depiction of Isherwood himself.

Above and around all of the action the clouds are building, however, as the Nazi party begins its rise to power. The reader’s knowledge of what this was soon to lead to and the chaos and destruction that was to engulf Berlin add an extra force to this wise, amusing and exquisitely written novel.

May 2018: Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

Almost as soon as I had finished the last page of this wonderful book (having been given a pre-publication copy) I wrote immediately to the publisher to declare how much I loved it and wanted to meet the author; and I was not surprised at all when it went straight in to the Sunday Times bestseller charts on release. Since then I have been recommending this book for anyone who is in need of a literary ‘pick-me-up’.

Inspired by real-life letters written to an agony aunt column in a wartime magazine, this novel revolves around Emmy who dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent. After spotting a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance but, after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt of Woman’s Friend magazine. Mrs Bird is very clear: letters containing any form of ‘Unpleasantness’ must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she decides the only thing for it is to secretly write back.

This novel is funny and moving  and it was a real wrench to leave the characters behind. Luckily the author came in to sign some copies this week (watch out for an event coming soon) and she told me she is writing a sequel this Summer. I am much relieved!

Click here to purchase the book online.

April 2018: The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh

Gilbert Pinfold is an irascible, sedentary, reactionary, middle-aged and successful novelist living in the west country in the 1950s. In an effort to reverse the effects of various mental confusions and obsessions, possibly brought on by an unprescribed intake of stimulants and sleeping draughts, he decides to take a cruise to the far east. The trip does not go according to plan.

Once on board, Pinfold becomes plagued by an increasingly bizarre and threatening series of conversations and incidents which seem at one point to involve everyone on the ship. Eventually he is forced to cut short his journey – but will his pursuers leave him alone once he’s back on dry land?

Written following what Waugh himself described as ‘a sharp but brief attack of insanity’ in 1954, this is not one of his best-known novels. It deserves to be more widely read. Acerbic, amusing and elegantly written in his typical style, it also contains some darker themes which, though present in all his other works, are here brought into a very personal focus. Ideal for anyone who has, however briefly, doubted the seeming reality of the world around them, it reveals arguably England’s greatest 20th-century prose stylist on cracking, if somewhat tormented, form.

 

March 2018: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I really enjoyed this prize-winning book. It’s a wonderful examination of loneliness and friendship and about fitting in in society. It’s inventive, witty and heartwarming and I gather is soon to be made in to a film.

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. She leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence – except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself and now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted  while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’d previously avoided.

This is a gorgeous story that powerfully depicts the loneliness of life, and the simple power of a little kindness – curl up with it and hide from the bad weather. You won’t be disappointed!

 

February 2018: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

This is the second novel from the author of Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize. In Swimming Lessons. Ingrid, has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. Her husband Gil was a writer, famous for a scandalous novel. Now aged and weak after a fall, he believes he catches sight of his wife, precipitating his daughter Flora and her sister Nan to return home to their beautiful but delapidated family house.

Flora is determined to unearth the secrets of the past – these turn out to be hidden amongst pages in the books which lie piled high around the house. This was Ingrid’s way of telling her story. Can Flora decipher it?

I really enjoyed the suspense in this book, and the thought of stories hidden within stories. This is a beautifully told literary mystery (a good choice for book clubs). If you would like to find out more Claire Fuller will be talking to fellow novelist Nicola Cornick at an event organised by the Bookshop and the Library on February 21st (7:30pm). Click here for details.

 

January 2018: The Comforters by Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s first novel and is a dazzling triumph of form and style.

The main characters, Catholic converts or renegades from the faith, are prey to various obsessions and neurosis. The themes – which include diamond smuggling, demonology, blackmail and a heroine haunted by the characters she is creating in the novel she is writing –  all combine and feed each other in the most satisfying fashion. In Gerogina Hogg, Spark has created a truly wonderful villain and, in Caroline Rose, an infuriatingly fascinating heroine.

All the wit and eloquence that characterises Muriel Spark’s later books are abundantly present here. It is an astonishing novel by any standards, the more so as it’s a debut. On its publication in 1957 it was highly praised by both Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, not always the kindest of critics. They were not wrong.

December 2017: Please see the bookshop’s Christmas recommendations (all just as excellent at any time of year).

 

November: The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Recently Pushkin Press has been doing an excellent job reissuing Stefan Zweig’s novellas. Small and beautifully designed they fit perfectly in your pocket and can be read it an hour or two. I first discovered his work a few years ago when a fellow bookseller recommended his full-length novel The Post Office Girl (later made in to the film The Grand Budapest Hotel).

The novel is brilliantly written and incredibly moving. Christine, a young Austrian woman whose family has been impoverished by the war toils away in a provincial post office. Out of the blue, a telegram arrives from an American aunt she’s never known, inviting her to spend two weeks in a grand hotel in a fashionable Swiss resort. She accepts and is swept up into a world of almost inconceivable wealth and unleashed desire, where she allows herself to be utterly transformed. Then, just as abruptly, her aunt cuts her loose and she has to return to the post office, where nothing will ever be the same.

Not to read if you are after some light entertainment but it has stayed with me ever since. If The Post Office Girl works for you you’ll perhaps be wanting others by Zweig: fortunately there are others, both novels and novellas, which are now becoming increasingly available in English.

 

October: The Village News: The Truth Behind England’s Rural Idyll by Tom Fort

Tom Fort writes curious books about curious things. His previous book was on the history of the A303 and was absolutely fascinating. In his latest book, The Village News, Fort mounts his trusty bicycle and covers the length and breadth of England to discover the essence of village life. He also travels back over six thousand years of communal existence for the peoples that eventually became the English. Scattered between the historical analysis are Tom’s personal memories of the village life he remembers and still enjoys today. Fort’s books are highly readable and often very amusing and this one is no exception. Sir Max Hastings describes it as a ‘triumph’ and The Oldie calls it ‘warm and thoughtful.’ We are inclined to agree with both judgements.

Tom Fort will be at the Hungerford Literary Festival on Saturday 14 October at 11am in the Croft Hall. Tickets £7 from the bookshop (01488 683 480) or on-line

The book can be bought from Hungerford Bookshop’s on-line store, as well as in the bookshop, or at the festival.

 

September: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

This is a book – or, more correctly, 12 books – which defies easy classification. It is on one level a superb chronicle of upper-class and bohemian English life from the eve of World War One to the 1960s but that’s to understate its astonishing tricks of description and narrative, sometimes highly detailed and sometimes tantalisingly elusive: these create, as the volumes proceed and the various events are recalled, a sense that the reader has almost experienced them personally. The host of memorable characters are magnificently choreographed and flow in and out of the story’s dance with naturalistic ease. Chief amongst these is Kenneth Widmerpool, one of the great monsters of fiction. Each book repays constant re-reading, on each occasion revealing some new facet. A true masterpiece.

(A biography of Powell will be published in October, Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling. It examines the comical and tragic events, and the friends, relations, lovers, acquaintances, fools and geniuses, that inspired this unique work. This will also be available at the Hungerford Bookshop.)

 

August: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

I had never read a Graham Swift before but after reading this beautifully crafted novella, I couldn’t wait to discover more – its a small masterpiece.

Set in 1924, Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, contemplates how to occupy her time on Mothering Sunday when she has no mother to visit. Unbeknown to her, this day will haunt her and influence the rest of her life.

I found it to be a book of two halves, separated with a shock that makes you gasp. Unabashedly intimate at the start, we think we are getting another ‘love story in a country house’ scenario: but this book is so much more and unfolds to become a meditation on the power of memory and storytelling. It reminded me at times of The Go-Between by LP Hartley (which I have just re-read and loved). Its languorous tone has also been likened to Edward Thomas’ great poem Adlestrop. I shall be recommending this over and over again and seeking out his other work.

 

July: Miss Boston & Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

Our bookseller Hilary picked up a pre-publication of this and was delighted to find the start was set on the Sheepdrove Estate at Lambourn. Inspired loosely by her Grandmother’s life, this is a beautifully crafted novel with believable characters – a story of friendship and secrets in the difficult times of the Second World War.

When Rene Hargreaves is billeted to Starlight Farm as a Land Girl, far from the city where she grew up, she finds farmer Elsie Boston and her country ways strange at first. Yet over the days and months Rene and Elsie come to understand and depend on each other. Soon they can no longer imagine a life apart. But a visitor from Rene’s past threatens the life they have built together, a life that has always kept others at a careful distance. Soon they are involved in a war of their own that endangers everything and will finally expose them to the nation’s press and the full force of the law.

Rachel Malik finished writing the book in Hungerford so we thought it only right that she should come and tell us all about it!

You can catch her for ‘Fizz and Fiction in the bookshop’ as part of Hungerford Arts Festival on Tuesday July 11th at 7:30pm. Spaces are limited. Please call 01488 683 480 to book or pop in to the bookshop.

 

June: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a about a community in need of absolution and two girls learning what it means to belong.

Set during the very hot summer of 1976 in a street in suburbia. Mrs.Creasy is missing and the Avenue is alive with whispers. The neighbours blame her sudden disappearance on the heat wave but ten-year-old Grace and Tilly aren’t convinced and the girls decide to take matters into their own hands.

Full of humour and careful depictions of everyday suffering, this is not so much a mystery novel as an investigation into the wealth of secrets and heartbreak that even the most commonplace street can hold. This book has garnered rave reviews and flew straight into the bestseller lists.

 

May: The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch has strong claim to being one of England’s greatest novelists. She was often at her best when considering a fairly self-contained group of people and observing the tensions, dramas and emotional sparks that fly between them. Few of her books achieve this better than The Bell (which was her own personal favourite of her early novels).

The setting is a thoroughly dysfunctional lay community set up next to an abbey in the Somerset countryside during a hot summer in the 1950s. The pastoral, bucolic beauty of the location and the ostensibly spiritual ambitions of the dozen or so participants contrast with the increasing tensions and disordered chemistry that gradually start to over-run everybody’s best intentions. The story concludes with an immensely satisfying denouement involving tragedy, hysteria, farce and several personal epiphanies.

Thought-provoking, evocative, amusing, touching and wise, it is almost impossible to fault – it is also an excellent introduction to Murdoch if you’re as yet unfamiliar with her remarkable body of work.

 

April: Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield 

This is one of my favoutite books and, as with Three Men in a Boat, I often turn to it when in need of a bit of cheering up. My mother and I used to read bits out to each other and snort with laughter. It is a comic novel written in the form of a diary by an upper-middle-class lady living in a Devonshire village in the late 1920s: despite its period setting, the book never seems to age.

The provincial lady of the title attempts to avoid disaster and chaos from descending upon her household while struggling to keep her dignity, juggling a limited income, grappling with the ever-present servant problem and attempting to spread her literary and social wings. The supporting cast includes an unresponsive husband, mischievous children and a wonderful array of characters including Our Vicar’s Wife, old Mrs Blenkinsop, Howard Fitzsimmons and Lady B, the more alarming of whom our heroine never seems quite to get the better of. The adversities and challenges of everyday life have seldom been as amusingly portrayed.

(The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America and The Provincial lady in Wartime are also well worth reading. All four are available in an omnibus edition.)

 

March: The Wild Other by Clover Stroud

A beautifully written and bravely honest memoir from broadcaster, writer and journalist, Clover Stroud.

Clover Stroud’s idyllic childhood in North Wiltshire was shattered when a horrific riding accident left her mother permanently brain-damaged. Just sixteen, she embarked on a journey to find the sense of home that had been so savagely broken. Travelling from gypsy camps in Ireland to the rodeos of west Texas and then to Russia’s war-torn Caucasus, Clover eventually found her way back to her home in the Vale of the White Horse.

This inspiring book book bursts with a sense of adventure and describes beautifully the redemptive power of nature and, for Clover, horses, despite her mother’s accident.

Clover Stroud will be speaking about her book for The Hungerford Bookshop on Wednesday 29 March at 7:30pm in The Town Hall. Tickets are available from the bookshop (01488 683 480) or online at Arts for Hungerford.

 

January: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatnbird-tribunal

Winner of the English PEN award this is a taut psychological thriller set in Norway that I enjoyed over Christmas.

TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough.

With touches of Rebecca and Northanger Abbey I was hooked throughout, and the unexpected ending raised questions I was mulling over long after I had finished it. A great choice for book clubs (and not too long either!).

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