According to the International Publishers Association, around 500 books are published in the UK each day, many more titles per head of population that in any other country. This is good news but does pose the question as to which book you should choose for your next chunk of bedtime, fireside or commute-time reading.
Who better to provide guidance than the owners of a local, award-winning independent bookshop? Each week Emma and Alex from the Hungerford Bookshop will suggest a title to make you laugh, or cry, or gasp, or giggle, or think. These and any other books in print can be obtained from them (if it’s not in stock it arrives the next day). If you need any other suggestions, do ask them. Book tokens are also available.
So, here we go…
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
It’s been filmed several times, it’s often referred to and the name of its central character has become a by-word for lavish living and a doomed quest to recapture the past. Indeed, so well known has it become that it’s quite possible you know a lot about it despite never having read the book.
If that’s the case, you have a very big treat in store. By turns moving, reflective, amusing and dramatic, it is without doubt a masterpiece of 20th century literature and, of all the books which lay claim to this title, it’s probably the most readable. Its clear and elegant prose captures perfectly the heady decadence of the ‘jazz age’ of the 1920s (a phrase coined by Fitzgerald) personified by the unforgettable, charismatic and ambiguous central character. If Fitzgerald had written nothing else, The Great Gatsby alone would have secured his reputation. It may not be a christmassy title but it is truly a book for all seasons – no book collection is complete without it.
Shorter Walks Near Hungerford by Alex Milne-White
Five years ago after getting fed up with being unable to offer a book of walks very local to Hungerford, Alex at the bookshop decided to write ‘Pub Walks Near Hungerford’ (Emma, his wife, needing the motivation of a pub to encourage her out). Since then it has always been in the bookshop’s top ten.
Now, just published, comes ‘Shorter Walks Near Hungerford’ aimed at those who perhaps don’t have the time, energy or stamina to complete a five- or six-mile hike, or have children that aren’t up to these kind of distances, but would still like to get out for a decent stroll in the glorious countryside at the heart of the North Wessex Downs. As the walks are shorter it wasn’t always possible to pass a pub en route – but fear not most still do and some are even pram/buggy friendly.
Other Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak (and A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell).
Two beautiful books on words perfect for stocking fillers (if you can bear to give them away).
Other Wordly is an exquisitely illustrated book full of words that have no direct translation but delight and surprise us. Gokotta is Swedish for “dawn picnic to hear the first birdsong”, and Komorebi is Japanese for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees.
There’s also a word for dancing awkwardly but with relish, and for the look shared by two people who each wish the other would speak first. I think I am going to start trying some out.
We also love A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Collective Nouns. Matt Sewell is best known for his quirky illustrations of birds but here he enlightens us to names for groups of animals. Accompanying each illustration is a playful, quirky description of each groups’ personality that readers cannot help but smile at.
Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons edited by Melissa Harrison
Melissa Harrison (best known for her novels) has collected a diverse and inspiring range of old and new prose and verse from novelists, poets and natural-history writers – including Robert MacFarlane, Patrick Barkham, John Clare, Richard Jefferies and Virginia Woolf – to create a perfect book to dip in and out of (it looks rather good too – always helpful when giving as a gift). It also includes writing by our local natural-history writer and school librarian, Nicola Chester.
Spanning 700 years this invigorating collection evokes the joys and consolations of this magical time of year. The trouble is once you have it you’ll just have to have Spring, Summer & Autumn too (or splash out and snap up the full slipcase version).
Spies by Michael Frayn
This is a beautifully evocative novel of two boys in wartime London whose lives are turned upside-down by the suspicion that a German spy may be living in their quiet suburb. Their determination to uncover the truth has lasting consequences for all those around them.
Written thorough the eyes of a young boy, this novel captures brilliantly what it’s like to be a child trying to enter and understand the world of grown-ups at a time of tension and upheaval. Touching upon issues of class and exploring themes of guilt, innocence, memory and knowledge, this is a superb book and deservedly won Frayn the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2002.
Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster
A fascinating story of an early 20th Century painting by Gwen John (overshadowed in history by her more famous brother Augustus John). The small, intricate picture of a corner in an attic room effects the lives of five women. Rather like ‘The President’s Hat’ by Antoine Laurain, the journey of an object through history gives us an insight into the people it touches.
Quintessentially Forster, however, it is women’s lives that are important here. The book explores what it means and what it costs to be both a woman and an artist. Beautifully crafted, this is an unusual and engrossing novel and made me research the artist Gwen John. So lovely when books can take you down unexpected avenues.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Very few ghost stories, for all their frequent goriness and sinister locations, possess the power to chill you to the bone. This one does. The sense of oppressive evil, wonderfully mirrored by the flat, quicksand-infested marshland landscape of North-east England, builds remorselessly until the reader feels as trapped as the rational but hapless narrator.
There’s not a wasted word nor an empty phrase – every sentence helps to reinforce the bleak setting and deepen the sense of foreboding. And as you turn the final pages, believing the hauntings to be all over, there’s a final horrifying twist. A wonderfully satisfying chiller for a dark November evening by the fireside.
A Month in the Country by JL Carr
This short and beautifully crafted novel, set shortly after the First World War, opens with the arrival of the shell-shocked and impoverished Tom Birkin in small Yorkshire village where he is to restore a medieval wall painting in the local church. Other themes are deftly intruded until one is also reading a memoir of unrequited love, a gentle examination of loss and disillusionment, a lyrical description of English rural life and a historical detective story.
Superbly written in Carr’s elegantly distinctive style, this is a true gem, a profoundly moving tale to which one will return time after time. No book I’ve read is remotely like it. A little masterpiece.