Book of the Month from The Hungerford Bookshop – June 2021

If you’re looking for something to read that will amuse, entertain, inform, inspire, provoke, re-assure or scare you out of your wits then we suggest this monthly series of book reviews provided by Emma and Alex of our local, multi-award-winning Hungerford Bookshop. The shop stocks an excellent range of new and second-hand books and what they don’t have on the shelves can be ordered for next-day delivery. You can also visit their online shop

June 2021: The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig

I am a big fan of Patricia Highsmith, so when I heard that Amanda Craig had subverted the premise about two men (unknown to each other) plan to murder each other wives so it’s two women fed up of their other halves planning the same I was intrigued (Hitchcock later made it into a film).

When Hannah is invited into the First-Class carriage of the London to Penzance train by Jinni, she walks into a spider’s web. Now a poor young single mother, she once escaped Cornwall to go to university. But once she married Jake and had his child, her dreams turned to bitter disillusion. Her husband has left her for a rich woman and Hannah has been surviving by working a cleaner in London. 

Jinni has problems of her own and  is equally angry. In the course of their journey, the two women agree to murder each other’s husbands. After all, they are strangers on a train – what could possibly go wrong?

But when Hannah goes to Jinni’s husband’s home the next night, she meets its shambolic caretaker who claims Jinni is a very different to the person Hannah has been led to believe. Who is telling the truth and what will become of the women’s pact to commit a terrible crime?

“She’s such a skillful story teller who vividly dramatises our lives with wit, wisdom and compassion.” (Bernadine Evaristo.)

May 2021: The Well Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith

It’s the time of year in the bookshop when our section on gardening starts to grow and grow and sales of this genre burst to life. In the last year our gardens have provided great solace and we have learnt how important these spaces are in our lives. Even people (like me) who use it just to sit in with a glass of wine in clement weather have had a stab at messing around with plants.

In Sue Stuart-Smith’s acclaimed book, The Well-Gardened Mind – Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World, she asks: how can getting our hands in the dirt help us look after our mental health? What lies behind the restorative power of the natural world?

In a powerful combination of contemporary neuroscience, psychoanalysis and brilliant storytelling, The Well Gardened Mind investigates the magic that many gardeners have known for years – working with nature can radically transform our health, wellbeing and confidence.

With illuminating stories of how people struggling with stress, depression, trauma and addiction can change their lives, this inspiring and wise book of science, insight and anecdote shows how our understanding of nature and its restorative powers is only just beginning to flower.

Stephen Fry lends his endorsment to this book (as well as Brian’s book!) saying “it’s the wisest book I have read for many years”.

You can hear the author in a free, live on-line illustrated talk as part of a season of events on health and well-being organied by Hungerford Hub & Hungerford Bookshop. Click here to register (and buy the book)

April 2021: The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley

We have long kept in stock The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs (hailed as the most comprehensive guide to natural navigation for walkers ever compiled) by Tristan Gooley. Given there has been little else to do with our free time lately other than go on walks it’s no surprise that sales and publication of books on walking and the outdoors have increased in the last year.

Gooley’s new book (out 8 April) sits nicely as a companion volume to The Walkers Guide and also his How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea. April seems an apt month for this to be published, when the weather is unpredictable and various (I am writing this under a blanket, it having just hailed outside, but yesterday I was under a parasol wondering where I had left last year’s sun cream).

There is a secret world of weather – one that we all live in, but very few see. Each day we pass dozens of small weather signs that reveal what the weather is doing all around us and what is about to happen. The clues are easy to spot when you know how, but remain invisible to most. In The Secret World of Weather you’ll discover the simple rules that explain the weather signs. And you’ll learn rare skills that enhance every minute you spend outdoors, whether in a town, on a beach or in a wilder spot. 

As ‘the natural navigator says: ‘I want you to get to know these signs as I have, as characters. By studying their habits and behaviours, the signs come to life and the meaning reveals itself. From this flows an ability to read what is happening and what is about to happen’.

Any of this author’s books help give us a greater insight into decoding the outdoor clues that have been hidden to us, and thus gives us greater pleasure and understanding as we head out into the natural world.

The book can be ordered and collected from Hungerford Bookshop by emailing or phoning on 01488 683480, or buy on-line here

March 2021: The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

I’m reading this book ahead of our ‘book club style’ event with the author on March 10th. The Hiding Game is Naomi Wood’s third novel(her previous were the award-winningMrs Hemingwayand The Godless Boys). 

I really enjoy it when I accidentally learn a bit about history, and in this case, art, as I am reading a work of fiction – it seems an added bonus. This novel takes place in 1922 at the Bauhaus Art School and while the core group of characters portrayed is fictional their tutors (Johannes Itten, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers) and some of their fellow students (Otti Berger, Marianne Brandt, Franz Ehrlich, Anni Fleishmann) were real figures.

Paul Beckermann arrives at the Bauhaus art school and is immediately seduced by both the charismatic teaching and his fellow students. Eccentric and alluring, the more time Paul spends with his new friends the closer they become, and the deeper he falls in love with the mesmerising Charlotte. But Paul is not the only one vying for her affections, and soon an insidious rivalry takes root.

As political tensions escalate in Germany, the Bauhaus finds itself under threat, and the group begins to disintegrate under the pressure of its own betrayals and love affairs. Decades later, in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy, Paul is haunted by a secret. When an old friend from the Bauhaus resurfaces, he must finally break his silence.

The Hiding Game is a beautifully written, powerful and suspenseful novel about the dangerously fine line between love and obsession, set against the most turbulent era of our recent past. It reminded me of The Secret History (with added art!). 

February 2021: A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer

As we are on the cusp of spring (perhaps some slight wishful thinking, but still..) I thought I would choose this new release: Seed to Dust: A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer.

Marc Hamer has designed and nurtured 12 acres of garden for over two decades. It is rarely visited so he is the only person who fully knows its secrets; but it is not his own.

His relationship with the garden’s owner is both distant and curiously intimate, steeped in the mysterious connection which exists between two people who inhabit the same space in very different ways. In this life-enhancing book Marc takes us month-by-month through his experiences both working in the garden and outside it, as the seasons’ changes bring new plants and wildlife to the fore and lead him to reflect on his past and future.

Through his peaceful and meditative prose we learn about gardening folklore and wisdom, the joys of manual labour, his path from solitary homelessness to family contentment and the cycle of growth and decay that runs through both the garden’s life and our own.

He says: “any garden belongs to everyone who sees it – it is like a book and everybody who visits it will find different things.”
 
Beautifully illustrated, Seed to Dust is a moving and restorative account of a life lived in harmony with nature. (If you like the sound of this, also seek out The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift, and The Well Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith.)
 
Buy directly from Hungerford Bookshop (open for orders and collections) or by clicking here

January 2021: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

When Emira, a young black woman, is apprehended by a security guard at a supermarket for ‘kidnapping’ the white child she’s actually babysitting, it sets off an explosive chain of events. Her employer Alix, a wealthy feminist blogger with the best of intentions, resolves to make things right. But Emira herself is aimless, broke and wary of Alix’s desire to help.
 
Alix develops an obsession with her employee, intrigued by her life and smitten by her looks. Intent on making Emira part of her family she invites Emira to Thanksgiving at her house. Also invited is Emira’s boyfriend, who turns out to be Alix’s high-school sweetheart. It sends them on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know: about themselves, each other, and the messy dynamics of privilege.
 
I read this book because of the amount of good reviews it had received, and the fact that it had been longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize. It is going to be an absolute hit with book groups. Like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo it explores the issue of race: but in this book the issue of privilege, and how the two intertwine – liberal racism, if you will – gets just as much of a look in. Nothing is clear-cut and this will provoke animated conversations about the characters actions and motivations. 
 
It really is a fresh, gripping read. it’s hard to believe it is her debut novel. I’m looking forward to what she writes next.
 
To order this book, please click here.

December 2020: Any one of 500,000 titles…

For this month, when books are perhaps more important than ever before as sources of information, entertainment, inspiration and – let’s face it – escapism, we’re going to recommend all the 50-odd titles that we’ve covered over the last three years in this post (scroll down to see them). Every one is, its own way, a real cracker.

In fact, we’ll go one better. We’re going to recommend every one of the several thousands of titles we have in our shop at any one time. These cover fiction, humour, travel, local interest, biography, cookery, history…you get the idea.

But why stop there? We can also order in any title we don’t have in the shop for next-day delivery from our wholesalers. They have about half a million titles in stock, all of which are just a mouse-click away. Tell us what you need and, if they have it, so should we the following morning.

We’re also going to recommend that you drop in and have a browse or a chat if you need some suggestions. We are also offering a ‘browse by appointment‘ service in the run-up to Christmas – click here or ask at the shop more more information.

November 2020: Heroic Animals: 100 Amazing Creatures Big and Small by Clare Balding

Bobbie the Wonder dog crossed more than 2,500 miles of plains, desert and mountains to find his way home – and became the inspiration for Lassie. Cher Ami the pigeon, despite being shot twice, delivered a message that saved the lives of 194 soldiers in 1918. Trakr the police dog spent two days exhaustively searching Ground Zero and found the last survivor of the 9/11 attacks.

Ever since Alexander the Great named a city after the horse who saved his life in battle (and another after his dog), human history wouldn’t be the same without the awe-inspiring tales of amazing animals. Clare Balding picks out the most heroic and heartwarming (and sometimes hilarious) animals from history and tells their stories.

From Simon the sea cat to Greyfriars Bobby’s 14-year vigil over his master’s grave, to the elephant that saved a small girl and Paul the World-Cup-predicting octopus, Heroic Animals brings to life incredible feats and moving moments which highlight the timeless special bond between human and animal.

A perfect present for any animal-lover.

October 2020: The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

Kindred in spirit to The Lost Words – which became a literary phenomenon as a result of a campaign in 2018  to get one into every primary school – but fresh in its form, The Lost Spells is a pocket-sized treasure that introduces a beautiful new set of natural spell-poems and artwork by beloved creative duo Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

Each ‘spell’ conjures an animal, bird, tree or flower – from barn owl to red fox , from grey seal to silver birch and from jay to jackdaw – with which we share our lives and landscapes. Moving, joyful and funny, The Lost Spells above all celebrates a sense of wonder, bearing witness to nature’s power to amaze, console and bring joy.

Written to be read aloud, painted in brushstrokes that call to the forest, field, riverbank and also to the heart, The Lost Spells summons back what is often lost from sight and care, teaching the names of everyday species, and inspiring its readers to attention, love and care. A perfect gift for adults as well as children, this is a book to cherish and to re-visit.

September 2020: English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Five years ago, James Rebanks’ memoir A Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District was published and became a bestseller. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand and has been for hundreds of years.

Just released is his new book English Pastoral, a stirring history of family, loss and the land over three generations on his farm. Rebanks was taught by his grandfather to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, that landscape had profoundly changed.

The men and women had all butvanished from the fields; the old stone barns had crumbled; the skies had emptied of birds and their wind-blown song. English Pastoral is the story of a damaged inheritance that affects us all. It tells of how rural landscapes around the world were brought close to collapse and how the age-old rhythms of work, weather, community and wild things are being lost.

But this elegy from the northern fells is also a song of hope: of how, guided by the past, one farmer began to salvage a tiny corner of England that was now his, doing his best to restore the life that had vanished and to leave a legacy for the future. This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place and how, against the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral – perhaps  not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.

For more information and to order online, please click here.

August 2020: Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

This novel was my saviour in the midst of lockdown. I needed something to carry me away but that was also warm, funny and had some depth. This book did it all and more. It was one of those novels that made me wish my mother was still around to share it with as I know she would have adored it too.

This Rachel Joyce’s latest. You might know her from her bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but she  has also written, amongst others, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and Perfect. Good though those books were this is on another level: intelligent, insightful, exciting and witty. If you loved Dear Mrs Bird or books by Joanna Cannon and Lissa Evans then try this.

Set in the ’50s, it follows Margery Benson – a forty-something, plain domestic science teacher – until, in a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.

Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules and, at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.

This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries. I absolutely loved it.

July 2020: Rodham: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfield

On 9 July, the much anticipated and already brilliantly reviewed Rodham: A Novel is published. If you love reading  ‘alternative histories’ we strongly recommend this sixth novel from Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld wrote the acclaimed The American Wife a decade ago: the protagonist had a strong resemblance to Laura Bush, and it became a word-of-mouth bestseller.

In Rodham she takes a similar theme. She asks the question what if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton.

‘Awfully opinionated for a girl’ is what they call Hillary as she grows up in her Chicago suburb. Smart, diligent, and a bit plain was the general consensus. Then Hillary goes to college and her star rises. At Yale Law School, she continues to be a leader and catches the eye of driven, handsome and charismatic Bill. But when he asks her to marry him, Hillary gives him a firm No. How might things have turned out for them, for America, for the world itself, if Hillary Rodham had really turned down Bill Clinton?

With her sharp but always compassionate eye, Sittenfeld explores the loneliness, moral ambivalence and iron determination that characterise the quest for high office, as well as the painful compromises demanded of female ambition in a world ruled by men. Astute and witty, we think this book is destined to be a hit.

Pre-order the book from Hungerford Bookshop and receive this free “Awfully Opinionated for a Girl” tote bag. Email them on hello@hungerfordbookshop.co.uk or call on 01488 683480 (the book will be £16.99) or buy online here

June 2020: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Many novels clearly and unambiguously occupy one genre. With Dorothy L Sayers, PG Wodehouse, Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler, for instance, it’s apparent from the moment you look at the cover and read the first paragraph what you’ll be getting (and you get it). There’s a lot to be said for this approach, certainly from a marketing point of view. Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is not, however, one of these books.

Most bookshops would file it under ‘humour’ which is fair enough as the novel is in places very funny indeed. But it’s a lot more than that. No finer satire about a small-town police station has probably ever been written: but it soon become clear that this is no ordinary police force and the officers are no ordinary policemen, which sheds a darker and more complex light on that part of the story. It’s also a surreal murder mystery, a parable of unending guilt, a whimsical discourse on the practical problems of eternity and the tale of a brief, tender and chaste love affair between a man and a bicycle.

As if that is not enough, an entire and deeply satisfying sub-plot is provided in the lengthy footnotes which describe the life and works of the crazed philosopher De Selby, with whom the narrator is obsessed. At the end of the story, and with the satisfying click of a piece of well-sprung machinery, the true nature of what has been going on is revealed. It is by any standards a remarkable book, by turns hilarious, sad, reflective and menacing.

Flann O’Brien had already published one novel and was to publish five more (one originally in Gaelic) when The Third Policeman was composed in 1940. However, in a staggering misjudgement, this book was rejected by Longmans and it only appeared posthumously in 1967. It’s now widely recognised as a classic piece of Irish literature – even if it may be hard for a bookseller to be sure in which section of their shop it should best be displayed.

Please click here to see the latest e-newsletter from the Hungerford Bookshop which includes details of its re-opening on 15 June and news of the virtual BookYak event during Independent Bookshop Week on 20-27 June 2020.

May 2020: See the Bookshop’s recommendations

Click here for a newsletter full of recommendations, ranging from new fiction to books about the outdoors, which comes with a quick video tour of the shop for those of you who are missing it. There’s no need to get involved with online giants, as you can still order from the Bookshop during the lockdown – see the top two paragraphs in the newsletter for details. 

April 2020: Anything on the list below

Looking back over the last three years worth of reviews, there are some truly cracking books on the list – got to be something for everyone. You can’t browse their selection in person as the shop is currently closed to the public; but you can browse their online shop (see above) and scroll down to see what they’ve picked out in previous months. Emma and Alex are still taking and fulfilling orders – keep your eye on the Facebook page for how to go about this and for their latest news.

March 2020: Here we Are by Graham Swift

I think Graham Swift is one of our best authors writing today. Hopefully the beautiful reissuing of his previous titles will help to give him the recognition he deserves. Certainly press for his newly released book Here We Are has been incredibly good. I loved Mothering Sundayby him, but I think this latest tops that. This is finely crafted and achingly emotive.

It is Brighton, 1959, and the theatre at the end of the pier is having its best summer season in years. Ronnie, a brilliant young magician, and Evie, his dazzling assistant, are top of the bill, drawing audiences each night. Meanwhile, Jack – Jack Robinson, as in ‘before you can say’ – is everyone’s favourite compere, a born entertainer, holding the whole show together.

As the summer progresses, the off-stage drama between the three begins to overshadow their theatrical success, and events unfold which will have lasting consequences for all their futures. Rich, comic, alive and subtly devastating, Here We Are is a masterly piece of literary magicianship which pulls back the curtain on the human condition.

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

Diary of a Somebody

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. 

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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. 

One day Alice, who moved to Morocco with her new hard-drinking husband, opens the door to find her old school friend standing there. Should she welcome her friend back into her life, especially since she is finding living in Tangier difficult? Perhaps she had misinterpreted events from the past. Should she embrace this opportunity to find happiness in friendship again? 

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.

The novel is set in the 1800s around the Thames in Oxfordshire and begins when an injured stranger bursts into an inn with the body of a child in his arms. From the first page I was caught. Her attention to detail and her dream-like prose is simply wonderful. It’s perfect reading for these cold days and nights, and I find myself racing to put the kids in bed so I can continue reading.

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…

December 2018 

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).

 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 Brooke-Hitching’s 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.

 

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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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale