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.
February 2020: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
There are plenty of good ghost stories around – indeed, Britain seems to produce more than its fair share – and this one (from the author of Chronicles of Ancient Darkness) is up with the best. The front cover identifies it specifically as ‘a ghost story’ but this is to understate its many other qualities. It is concerned not merely with drawing a cold finger down the spine but also with telling a tale of isolation, doubt and mental collapse.
The book is dominated by its setting – not a creaking gothic mansion, a windswept fenland landscape or the waiting room of a Victorian railway station but the bleak high Arctic in midwinter, pretty much as alarming and unforgiving landscape as one can find.
As for the plot, it begins unthreateningly enough with five young men planning a scientific expedition in the late 1930s. The venture becomes dogged by a series of misfortunes even before they have left England. The further north they sail, the more the reader becomes aware of some brooding and malevolent presence that awaits them at their destination. One is not disappointed.
Like in all the best such stories, this menace is never confronted full-on but only glimpsed or inferred. The suspicion builds that it is a mental phantasm caused by the utter darkness, by the isolation and by recollections of half-expressed warnings from others, principally the crew of the boat which took them to Gruhuken. Indeed, as it progresses, it becomes as much a tale of a mind turned in on itself as a traditional ghost story. The final realisation of what has been going on, and why, only becomes clear to the reader – and the main character – right at the end.
As well as bring a gripping and beautifully written book, it is also a superb evocation of an over-winter spent far above the Arctic Circle. Life in the cabin is dominated by a series of routines and procedures and very carefully prepared ventures into the dark world outside which effectively creates an alternative reality almost akin to being in outer space. Many times after reading it (which I pretty much did in one sitting) I have found myself drawn back to it: after re-discovering even a few paragraphs, the whole shadowy, dark vision is rekindled in my imagination. An excellent book, but perhaps one best not read at night when you are alone in a dark house…
January 2020: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
Here’s one for fans of Jane Austen but with a new angle. Gill Hornby, who lives in Kintbury wth her husband Robert Harris, has written a novel that focusses on Jane’s sister Cassandra as she deals with Jane’s legacy. 23 years after the death of her famous sister, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family’s friends, the Fowles.
She knows that, in some dusty corner of the sprawling vicarage, there is a cache of family letters which hold secrets she is desperate should not be revealed. As Cassandra recalls her youth and her relationship with her brilliant yet complex sister, she pieces together buried truths about Jane’s history – and her own. Before long she is facing a stark choice: should she act to protect Jane’s reputation? Or leave the contents of the letters to go unguarded into posterity…
Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics, Miss Austen is a wonderfully original and emotionally complex novel about the loves and lives of Cassandra and Jane Austen that gives a refreshing new insight into the sisters.
Gill Hornby will be speaking about her novel to Helena Kelly (author of Jane Austen: The Secret Radical) at Hungerford Town Hall at 7:30 on February 11th. You can also pre-order the book for £10 (it’s published on Jan 23rd at £12.99) and receive a free copy of The Beautifull Cassandra, one of Jane Austen’s early short novels. Click here for more information.
December 2019: Dubliners by James Joyce
Considering its small size and population, Ireland has produced more than its fair share of writers (as Scotland has of inventors). One of the most pre-eminent is James Joyce, a man who despite not having been very prolific has been cited as a major influence by a large number of writers. It’s probably true to say that most people have heard of him but far fewer have read anything he’s written. Certainly his two most famous books, Ulysses and, in particular, Finnegan’s Wake, have become by-words for obscurity due to their stream-of-consciousness approach, as well as their length.
No such accusation can be made about Dubliners. The publication of this, Joyce’s first book, was fraught with reverses, disputes and rejections and at one point the only remaining copy had to be stolen from the publisher, the other typescripts having been destroyed. It finally appeared in 1914 and has never been out of print since.
All of the 15 stories are set in Dublin and are mainly concerned with themes of missed opportunity, regret, self-awareness (often, for the main character, coming too late), social ambition, the perils of drink and the shortcomings of human relationships. Despite being written more than a century ago there’s a universal quality to the various Dubliners’ disappointments and dilemmas which make the tales seem fresh and compelling today. It’s impossible to believe that Graham Greene, who explored many similar themes himself, was not familiar with the stories.
Two of the most memorable and effective, Counterpoints and A Little Cloud, both describe evenings out in Dublin, both of which end badly. In the former, the disaster can perhaps be seen coming; in the latter, the conclusion is less dramatic but because of being more surprising, all the more effective.
The longest and last story, The Dead, is by any definition a masterpiece and worth the cover price on its own. Beautifully filmed by John Huston in 1987 (his last movie), it has been described by many critics as being one of the greatest short stories ever written in English. Set mainly at a musical party one snowy December evening, Gabriel Conroy finds himself involved in a succession of seemingly minor incidents which serve to undermine his previously good opinion of himself. In the final scene, after the party in a city-centre hotel room, one of these explodes into a tearful admission by his wife which leads him to a wholesale re-evaluation of his own life, culminating in a sense of mounting existential dread. Every detail of this remarkable story is exquisitely crafted and written – none more so than the last paragraph, possibly one of the finest passages of English prose ever written.
November 2019: Postcard from the Past compiled by Tom Jackson
The business of writing postcards is, it seems, over and done with. Like telegrams, telexes, faxes, CDs and even letters, they belong to a bygone age. Exact statistics are hard to come by but it seems that the high-point of their use was in the first two decades of the 20th century. Britain’s railway network reached its greatest extent at the same time, which perhaps tells you all you need to know. I certainly can’t remember when I last sent, or received, one.
I was surprised when a quick bit of research revealed that over two billion are still sent each year worldwide, many presumably written on holiday and probably to relatives and friends who aren’t on social media. It’s not a simple job: one needs the postcard itself, a pen, a stamp: and then there’s the problem of what to say. The area available for writing is too large for some messages and not nearly large enough for others, making the composition an exacting exercise. Probably my favourite ever cartoon is of a couple sitting by a tropical hotel pool, with the wife writing a postcard. “Does ‘anti-climax’ have a hyphen?” she is asking.
Tom Jackson’s book makes a personal selection of choice phrases from “an Everest of old postcards” from the last 75 years The results are variously touching, hysterical, perplexing, sinister, moving and surreal. Like half-overheard scraps of a conversation between strangers – or an aside in a play by Alan Bennet – they can give powerful, if often incomprehensible, insights into the human mind. One could quote many of the selected extracts but this would be to underplay their cumulative effect. I’ll just pick one: “I can’t explain what it’s like here. So I won’t bother.” I’ve seldom heard, in fiction or in real life, a more world-weary pair of sentences. What was so hard to explain? Why was the writer so depressed by it? Why did he send the card at all? Or was it a code, or a joke? All one can do is speculate: and then, turn over the page and speculate once more.
As well as being stunning little vignettes of a past age, the book also shows how much we share with our ancestors, something our fast-paced life so different for theirs often underplays. “It strikes me,” Tom Jackson said, “that the past is funny and odd and serious and heart-breaking and packed full of people who feel a lot like us.”
In an event organised by the Hungerford Bookshop, Tom Jackson will be at the Hungerford Hub on Tuesday 26 November 2019 to talk about the book and to sign copies.
(What with winning awards and hosting a book event for Rick Stein, Emma hasn’t had enough time to do her usual review: so this one was done Brian from Penny Post.)
October 2019: The Go-Between by LP Hartley
Like A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick, this book has perhaps suffered from having a famous and much-quoted opening line beyond which many have not ventured. There was also a fairly good film version made in 1971 but, like so many adaptations, this fails to catch all the rich subtlety of the book itself.
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ is a perfect summation of the book’s scope: not only does it catch the sense of bewilderment with which a middle-aged man tries to understand a shattering emotional tangle with which he got unwittingly involved as a child but it also signposts the novel’s wry dissection of the mores of Edwardian society.
Set in 1900 but published in 1953, The Go-Between is a superb evocation of a callow 13-year-old’s memories of being at first manipulatively and then shockingly inducted into the world of adult emotional behaviour while all the time struggling to fit in with and propitiate a class of people he had not previously encountered. The tension sometimes relents but is always present, often in the background, and is always growing: one knows that there will be a dramatic conclusion but it’s unclear until the moment eventually arrives what form it will take.
Finally, in a beautifully crafted epilogue, the narrator returns, decades later, to the scene of this traumatic summer holiday and re-encounters some of the people involved, whereupon the whole process of manipulation and complicity begins anew.
Immaculately written and populated with powerful and memorable characters, the book also – like Iris Murdoch’s The Bell – uses the increasingly oppressive summer heat as an additional backdrop to the unfolding story. It also contains one of the best descriptions of a village cricket match found in fiction.
All in all, it is a remarkable book which justly deserves its fame. For those who have not read it, it’s an excellent and haunting tale of an age which has become familiar to us through the recent glut of TV period dramas, most of which are less good than this. For those who have read it, a return to the foreign country of the past will be amply rewarded.
September 2019: Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston
I’ve realised that two of my favourite comic novels are written in the form of a Diary: Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield and Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. It’s no surprise then that I am loving Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston which is very much in the same vein as those two and deals as amusingly with suburban and middle-class challenges.
Brian Bilston is actually better known as a poet: a social media sensation after his almost daily poems won him fans such as J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin and Grayson Perry. His verse is playful, topical, mundane and often moving. The ‘everyday’ subject matter should not fool the reader into thinking they are not very clever: indeed his playing with form (whether as an homage to other writers, or a poem as a graph, or created from found lines of songs) is very impressive.
Bilston’s verse is now liberally interspersed in his brilliant new novel, which I have been reading in the lead-up to his live performance at the Croft Hall on Saturday 7 September (an event organised by Arts For Hungerford). I can’t wait to hear him, especially as for years he preferred to remain anonymous.
The novel centres on a struggling poet called Brian. It’s January 1 and Brian Bilston is convinced that this year his New Year’s resolution will change his life. Every day for a year, he will write a poem – it’s that simple. His life certainly needs some improvement: his ex-wife has taken up with a motivational speaker and marketing guru; Brian seems constantly to disappoint his son, Dylan; while, at work, he is drowning in a sea of spreadsheets and management jargon. Poetry, then, will be his salvation. But there is an obstacle in the form of Toby Salt, his arch nemesis in the Poetry Group and a potential rival suitor to Liz, Brian’s new muse.
Part tender love story, part murder mystery, part exploration of a wasted life and interspersed with ingenious, funny and touching poems about the mundane and the profound this book has received praise from many including Dawn French and author Jonathan Coe. I’m not surprised – it has been a delightful read.
August 2019: The Hungerford Bookshop’s summer reading suggestions
Rather than one book, this month we’re recommending several.
Summer is the perfect time to get lost in a good book, whether you’re reclining in a deckchair in your garden, lounging by the sea or sitting on a plane – indeed, maybe you want a book to inspire you to travel in the first place.
Whatever your needs and whatever your fancy, Hungerford Bookshop has come up with a great selection of titles to read over the holidays. Visit the bookshop for their ‘holiday reading’ table and travel literature ideas, or click through to their on-line shop to see some highlights.
July 2019: In Your Defence by Sarah Langford
Just as the most famous detectives and spies are fictional, so too is probably the most famous barrister – the dishevelled, Wordsworth-quoting, claret-quaffing, cigar-puffing Horace Rumpole who championed the hopeless cases that came his way at the Old Bailey with entertaining, unexpected and often thought-provoking results. (Although written in the 70s, the stories have aged very well: all are available from, or can be ordered by, the Hungerford Bookshop).
Sarah Langford, however, is a real person and a real barrister. Her job, like Rumpole’s, is to stand in court representing the mad and the bad, the vulnerable, the heartbroken and the hopeful. She must become their voice: weave their story around the black and white of the law and tell it to the courtroom. These stories may not make headlines but they will change the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary ways. They are stories which, but for a twist of luck, might have been yours.
With remarkable candour, Sarah describes eleven cases which reveal what goes on in our criminal and family courts: these are tales of domestic fall out, everyday burglary, sexual indiscretion, and children caught up in the law. They are sometimes shocking and they are often heart-stopping. She examines how she feels as she defends the person standing in the dock. She also shows us how our attitudes and actions can shape not only the outcome of a case, but the legal system itself.
This book doesn’t have the moments of farce or underlying sense of jocularity that was the hallmark of John Mortimer’s Rumpole tales: being based on real life, the stories are grittier and messier and the rights and wrongs of the case often more ambiguous. They are powerful, moving, thoughtful and elegantly written accounts of an aspect of life many of us have never experienced.
June 2019: A legacy of Spies by John Le Carré
It’s been said of John Le Carré that he would have been awarded every literary prize on offer were he not to have concentrated on the world of espionage. Whatever the truth of that, his writing is of such constant excellence that it transcends any limitations the genre might impose on lesser talents.
All his books are first and foremost superb novels, in which characterisation, plot, atmosphere and dialogue combine with tension, drama and often no small sense of personal peril to provide perfectly executed works of literature. In George Smiley he has created one of the most enduring and satisfyingly complete characters in British fiction.
Although his most famous books are set in the Cold War, another quality le Carré possesses is his ability to bring his themes up to date, sometimes drawing on past events in the characters’ lives which have already been explored in earlier works.
A Legacy of Spies, published in 2017, is a superb example of this. Peter Guillam, Smiley’s former assistant, is dragged out of retirement in rural France when the results of a decades-old operation – the one described in his early masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – are re-awaked. Guillam is forced to confront not only his own past but also to outwit series of opponents which include his former employers, now disconcertingly dominated by steely-eyed lawyers. For fans of Smiley, there is even an appearance from the man himself towards the end.
This is a richly satisfying book and one which would be enjoyed even by anyone unfamiliar with the earlier works to which some of the events refer. For le Carré devotees, however, who have followed the twists and turns of the characters since the 1960s, it’s a particular treat. It’s to be hoped that there will be many more to come.
May 2019: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
I am reading an early-release copy of this because I will be interviewing the author at a midday event on May 9th. Often I ask other people to interview but this one appealed so much I couldn’t wait to read it myself and meet the writer.
The Doll Factory has been tipped as one of the ‘must read’ books of 2019. The rights to publish it were fought over by 14 different publishers (eventually Picador scooped the deal) and the TV rights have already been bought.
I love the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and I also enjoy a good historical thriller so this book is right up my street. It is the intoxicating story of a young woman who aspires to be an artist, and the man whose obsession may destroy her world for ever.
Set in London in 1850, the greatest spectacle the city has ever seen is being built in Hyde Park. Among the watching crowd, two people meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment, forgotten seconds later; but for Silas, a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, this meeting marks a new beginning. When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of art and love. But Silas has only thought of one thing since their meeting – and his obsession is darkening.
I can’t tell you what happens at the end because I haven’t quite finished it yet: besides I wouldn’t want to give anything away. I am enjoying being lost in that world and I can’t wait to ask Elizabeth Macneal (who is an artist herself) about her debut novel.
April 2019: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
Many people will recognise John Boyne’s name from his moving book for older children, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which was later made into a film.
This book (for adults) is altogether different.
Part of the plot pivots around an horrific and traumatic wartime incident, but most of the action is set well after the war and spans most of a man’s life.
The central character, Maurice, is very hard to like. Driven by an obsession to be a well-known author, but failing to come-up with any good ideas for novels himself he starts to steal other people’s.
This is a highly readable book – I couldn’t put it down – and at times very funny. The twist at the end was very well executed. It raises some interesting ideas about the ownership of stories and the concept of blame (it’s a great choice for book clubs). I enjoyed it so much I immediately bought his previous one The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which, like this, has received extensive praise.
March 2019: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Hard-boiled detectives became something of a staple of American fiction in the mid-20th century, leading to the use of the disparaging term ‘pulp fiction.’
Most of these are now forgotten; but the best of the genre stand comparison with great writers in other fields and certainly created a powerful and distinctive style, often imitated but rarely bettered.
Two such authors are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The latter’s masterpiece is probably The Maltese Falcon from 1930, a classic and fast-moving tale of deception, greed, passion and double-crossing. The main character, the wonderfully drawn Sam Spade, shares with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe an engaging combination of toughness and personal integrity. The brooding atmosphere is perfectly captured and the dialogue is whiplash-tight – so good, indeed, that John Huston was wise enough to retain many passages word for word when making his superb 1941 film version, starring Humphrey Bogart.
The Maltese Falcon, as well as being a cracking good read, is a wonderful introduction to this peculiarly American style of fiction. Many of Hammett’s other works are darker: all are worth investigating but if the wise-cracking Sam Spade is to your taste then you may find Chandler’s novels more akin to, and up to the standard of, this simmering masterpiece.
February 2019: Tangerine by Christine Mangan
Feel the need to be transported to a hotter climate? Want to get lost in a gripping plot? Then try this psychological thriller set in Morocco.
Set in the 1950s, it centres on two inseparable roommates at college who after an horrific incident, have spent the last year apart.
As Alice apprehensively allows Lucy back in to her life Lucy slowly and subtley ties to bend their relationship to a direction and intensity that alarms and confuses Alice. When Alice’s husband goes missing, Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind. The author portays this very well and the psychological manipulations are very reminiscent of a Patricia Highsmith novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this tightly-wound page-turner. I could feel the heat of Morcco eminating from the pages and hear the bustle of the medinas. A good choice if you feel like escaping this cold weather!
January 2019: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Years ago I read the gripping, gothic story The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (which was subsequently adapted for television starring the wonderful Olivia Coleman).
So when a beautiful advance copy of her new novel Once Upon a River landed on my desk I took it home straight away.
It’s been selected in numerous articles as a book to watch out for in 2019 and I am not surprised – this deserves to be a bestseller as much as, if not more so, than her first. I am delighted that she has agreed talk about it for us on 7th February. It’s officially published on January 24th. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to get back to it…
Please see the bookshop’s Christmas recommendations
November 2018: The Golden Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching
This beautiful book 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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 Ravatn
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!).