Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates

H.E. Bates was first introduced to me as the author of The Darling Buds of May, which I used to love on the TV, but I have never actually read anything by him. Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944) has been on my shelf for almost five years – indeed, I bought it one week after reading Lyn’s review at I Prefer Reading. Indeed, you can see my comment saying that I intended to keep an eye out for it.

Fair Stood

It joined those books I took to Edinburgh with me – and, in fact, I think I read all of this one on the train journey. It certainly begins dramatically. John Franklin is forced to crash-land while in a bomber plane over France, along with his fellow pilots. That happens in the first few pages, and was my introduction to the excellence of Bates’ writing:

The ground was too soft and the moon for a few seconds jolted wildly about the sky. The Wellington did a group loop, about three-quarters circle, and Franklin could not hold it. He was aware of being thrown violently forward and of his sickness knotting in his stomach and then rising and bursting and breaking acidly, with the smell of fuel and oil, in his mouth. He was aware of all the sound of the world smashing forward towards him, exploding his brain, and of his arms striking violently upward, free of the controls. For a moment he seemed to black-out entirely and then the moon, hurling towards him, full force smashed itself against his eyes and woke him brutally to a moment of crazy terror. In that moment he put up his hands. He felt his left arm strike something sharp, with sickening force, and then the moon break again in his face with bloody and glassy splinters in a moment beyond which there was no remembering.

Now, I usually prefer the crux of a novel to be about somebody forgetting to return a library book (for instance), but I thought that was really rather good – and the domestic reader is not ostracised at any point by war jargon or jingoism.

For some reason they are very keen to be in Occupied France rather than Unoccupied France. I couldn’t work out why that was (anybody?) – being around Nazis seems like a bad idea to me, but I’m sure there are reasons.

This all sets up the main section of the novel. Franklin is badly injured, but they have no choice but to get away from the wreck of their aircraft. Warily, he approaches a woman at a farmhouse. At the first one, she is terrified but asks him to leave. At the second, the woman is completely calm, and welcomes him and the others in for food and somewhere to rest. She and her family selflessly offer them somewhere to stay for as long as is needed – though it would mean they would certainly all be killed if it were discovered.

‘Calm’ is the word that is used over and over to describe Francoise, and it is very fitting. She is softly-spoken, unflappable, and sensible. Even when she and Franklin travel into the nearest town because his arm badly needs the attention of a doctor, Francoise refuses to panic or even (it seems) worry. She has a wisdom that can only be gained by implacably facing the unfaceable. (And a good line in simple bribery: ‘She smiled. “With a chicken you can do most things,” she said.”With two chickens you can do anything.”‘)

Lyn uses the word ‘understated’ in her review to describe Fair Stood the Wind For France, and it is very apt – and Francoise sets the tone. Her manner seeps into the novel. Terrifying and terrible things are happening, but Bates does not inject the novel with undue drama; instead, we witness these events in a kind of a quiet horror and share the simple humanity of the characters. Because, of course, Francoise and Franklin begin to fall in love. And they do that in a very understated way too. There are no overblown statements, but simply a meeting of minds and a shared understanding.

It’s a lovely novel, which combines the simple and the extraordinary beautifully. Thank you, Lyn, for bringing it to my attention – and this proves that books can wait a while on the shelf before they’re finally enjoyed!

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Seize the DayOne of the books I bought in the US in 2013 (in Alexandria, Virginia to be precise) was Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. I daresay I could have found a copy in England, but it felt right to buy one of the Big American Writers while in the US of A. And eventually I read it, and then there was quite a gap before I got around to writing this…

I went in with some trepidation. There are all sorts of those Big American Writers whom I’ve still not read. Faulkner, Hemingway… well, those are the only two I can think of right now that I’d put in the same intimidating category as Saul Bellow. But now I’m not quite sure why I put him into that category at all – Seize the Day was really good, and not at all off-putting or difficult or testosterone-filled in the way that I imagine those other two are. (Am I wrong about them too?)

Seize the Day (1956), for anybody else in my position of Bellow ignorance, is apparently considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century and was Bellow’s fourth novel. It’s also super short, which is a criterion that meant more to me than those other things – my copy weighs in at only 118 pages.

The hero – though he is far from that – is Wilhelm Adler, a failed actor who is in a mire of frustration. He is estranged from his wife and children and a disappointment to his elderly father – as his father is not reluctant to let him know. Wilhelm has moved into his father’s hotel, and is trying to reconnect with him, though it is not made easy. The focus of Seize the Day is a single, ordinary day: Wilhelm is going to have breakfast and an argument with his father, and is musing on the various failures of his life. We go in and out of his mind, reliving the past, seeing how everything went wrong by increments. Here, for example, is an overview of his dashed hopes of becoming a filmstar, after he was invited to a screen test:

But when Venice saw the results of the screen test he did a quick about-face. In those days Wilhelm had had a speech difficulty. It was not a true stammer, it was a thickness of speech which the sound track exaggerated. The film showed that he had many peculiarities, otherwise unnoticeable. When he shrugged, his hands drew up within his sleeves. The vault of his chest was huge, but he really didn’t look strong under the lights. Though he called himself a hippopotamus, he more nearly resembled a bear. His walk was bearlike, quick and rather soft, toes turned inward, as though his shoes were an impediment. About one thing Venice had been right. Wilhelm was photogenic, and his wavy blond hair (now graying) came out well, but after the test Venice refused to encourage him. He tried to get rid of him. He couldn’t afford to take a chance on him, he had made too many mistakes already and lived in fear of his powerful relatives.

More recently, he has lost much of his savings in an ill-fated financial dalliance with Dr Tamkin, a self-professed psychologist who is really fraudulently preying upon Wilhelm’s weak character. Yet even here, there are shades of grey. We aren’t seeing the conniving nemesis manipulating the vulnerable hero – it is more nuanced than that.

Most nuanced, and the section I most admired, is the conversation between Wilhelm and his father. If Wilhelm embodies the death of a certain sort of American dream more broadly, these exchanges look more closely at the universal desire to make one’s parents proud. Dr Adler is fairly harsh in his refusal to excuse his son, and is clearly disappointed in him, but Bellow manages to make us see that this is one conversation in a long line of similar conversations. Wilhelm is asking for pity where his father can only feel disgust at his self-pity. Each line of dialogue is believable while being a blow to the heart.

It’s hardly revelatory to say that I think Saul Bellow is a very good writer, but I had expected bravado and grandiose writing, rather than the subtlety and even delicacy – yet somehow a forthright delicacy – that he puts on the page. I’m last to the party, but I can certainly see myself returning to Bellow when in that sort of frame of mind.

Next stop, Faulkner?

Poor Relations by Compton Mackenzie

(To kick off: everybody in the UK, and around the world, is thinking about Brexit at the moment. I don’t think I have the heart to talk about it myself here, because it has broken my heart a little and – combined with our last general election – I no longer feel like I recognise or understand my own country. Victoria has written about it all brilliantly. And now I’m going to seek solace in books.)

Poor Relations

One of the books I read while I was in Edinburgh was by the appropriately-Scottish Compton Mackenzie. Like most people, I think all I knew about him was that he’d written Whisky Galore (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen a bit of the film) and that his first name wasn’t Crompton (he often comes up when I’m looking for Richmal Crompton books by people who’ve made that error). It actually wasn’t Compton either, it was Edward, but let’s move on.

Well, according to the good people of Hutchinson’s “Pocket” Library – perhaps they put that in inverted commas because nobody has pockets big enough to fit this paperback – Poor Relations is a ‘famous novel’, and according to the Evening Standard, quoted on the cover, it is “Very witty and very amusing”. BOTH those things AT ONCE, people. (They aren’t wrong.)

The novel was Mackenzie’s seventh, published in 1919, and he went on to publish dozens of other novels before his death in 1972, including (I discover, on reading his Wikipedia article) one which is a sequel to Poor Relations. I also learn from Wikipedia that he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, as I did (floreat Magdalena!), and co-founded the SNP, as I did not.

I shall certainly look out for more by Mackenzie, as I loved Poor Relations. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t something as funny as this – his turn of phrase reminded me a lot of Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, and the whole novel has the sort of levity that characterises the best of early-20th-century insouciant fiction.

John did possess another cap, one that just before he left England he had bought about dusk in the Burlington Arcade, one that in the velvety bloom of a July evening had seemed worthy of summer skies and seas, but that in the glare of the following day had seemed more like the shreds of barbaric attire that are brought back by travellers from exotic lands to be taken out of a glass case and shown to visitors when the conversation is flagging on Sunday afternoons in the home counties.

The main character is a John Touchwood. He is – as the narrative often reminds us – a ‘successful romantic playwright and unsuccessful realistic novelist’, and has made something of a fortune at plays which the public love and the intelligentsia rather despise. That intelligentsia include his brother and his brother-in-law, one of whom is a critic who makes no bones about his own infinite literary superiority, the other of whom was recently a vicar but has decided to leave that life in order to become, himself, a playwright. Both are insufferably pompous and rude to longsuffering John, and both are hilarious to read about.

In every direction, Touchwood is besieged by ‘poor relations’ – and they are more than willing to impose. Whether it is that ex-vicar moving into his country house and (without permission) erecting a garden room in which to write, or his other in-laws ditching their children with him a refusing to panic when they are lost in a zoo, John’s patience is repeatedly tried.

The novel is quite episodic. There is something of a romance storyline thrown in, with an admirably unflappable woman whom he hires as his secretary and who insists on behaving professionally until… well, you can probably imagine that there is a happy conclusion. Before that, we move from relative to relative, often returning to the same ones again, but without much evolution in the way they treat John. Which makes sense – how many of us have sharply changing relationships with our nearest and dearest?

John himself is very likeable. He is put-upon but not weak, and he gives as could as he gets in determined ripostes and eloquent rebuttals – while still putting his hand in his pocket most of the time, despite the lack of gratitude he gets from all sides. He reminds me of characters that A.A. Milne might have created in his Punch stories, albeit perhaps slightly steelier when needed.

After reading Poor Relations, I kept coming across Mackenzie novels in secondhand bookshops – but I didn’t really know where to start, especially since he wrote so many. They were all chunky hardbacks, so I left them there rather than weigh down my luggage – but if anybody has any suggestions for others they’ve enjoyed, that would be very welcome. And I heartily recommend tracking down a copy of Poor Relations!


Agatha Christie, Panthers, and other graphic novels

Look guys, I’m not saying I’m a graphic novels expert, per se. And that would be because I’m not. But I have been reading more than you might expect over the past months, and I thought I’d bring them all together into one post – not least because it’s graphic novels week over at Vulpes Libris, and today I’ve taken up a lot to talk about Panther by Brecht Evens


Evens is certainly my first and firmest love in the world of graphic novels (even given my reservations about Panther), and you can see my thoughts on a couple other Evens books – The Making Of and The Wrong Place under my Evens tag. Discovering him made me realise that graphic novels weren’t all superhero cartoon style – which doesn’t attract me at all – and his use of watercolours really drew me in.

But it’s slim pickings, I’ve found, in looking for artists that I really like. I went through the graphic novel section of Oxford’s library and came away with only one that looked me-friendly (Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, which was enjoyable if infuriating at times, and non-fiction rather than a novel); I went through almost every book in the graphic novel shop Gosh! and found nothing at all that appealed to me. But I did find the lovely Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs in a little shop in Ludlow, and wrote about it here.

I seem to have better luck with graphic non-fiction, actually. I recently bought and very much enjoyed Agatha: the real life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau, and Alexandre Franc (and, incidentally, have borrowed a few graphic novelisations of Christie’s books from my friend Fiona, so we’ll see how I get on with those). This one is also actually in translation, from French, and translated by Edward Gauvin.

Agatha graphic novel

I was a bit cautious at first, because it starts off with Agatha Christie’s ‘disappearance’ – a part of her life that is so often returned to that I am completely sick of the whole thing. I was worried that the whole book would take place during those eleven days – but thankfully it does not, and there is even a fun twist at that point: Poirot turns up as her confidante. If that sounds hopelessly twee, don’t worry – it’s done in a fun and irreverent way.

The rest of the book is very episodic, and often jumps back and forth. It’s more a series of snapshots of Agatha’s life, from childhood to death, including various trips around the world. My favourite bit is when, on the Orient Express, she has the idea to set a murder there – and is immediately besieged by Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence, all of whom are keen to be the lead. Poirot’s jealousy of Marple in the book is an especial joy.

Borrowed from here.
Borrowed from here.

Obviously this is not the best place to learn all about every facet of Christie’s life, but there is still plenty here – and I liked the slightly stark line drawings and interesting use of colour. Lots of jewel tones. The scenes of a sunset in Egypt make the book worth it all by themselves. Do hunt it out.

What else have I read? Ages ago I got a review copy of The Bind by William Goldsmith from Jonathan Cape, and even read it, but didn’t get around to writing about it here.

the bind cover

I was tempted in by the fact that it’s set in a book binding shop. It’s a ghost story, no less, and a battle between rival brothers. The story was good fun – and it was more about the plot than any of the other graphic books I’ve read so far. I also really enjoyed Goldsmith’s subtle palette. It’s quite a contrast to Evens or the Agatha book, both of which I also like for the way they used colour; Goldsmith did everything in shades of umber and grey. It fits the tone of the book beautifully.

the bind

It seems that I am chiefly drawn to graphic books because of the colours and artistic style – even if those can vary quite substantively from book to book. I don’t only like bold colours, or natural colours, or sharp lines, or watercolours – but (in those age-old words) I know what I like and what I don’t like. And the look of a graphic novel takes precedent for me over the story. Which surprises me, rather, given my love of good writing. (Graphic book fans – where do you fall down on this scale?)

But I have my limits, it seems. I tried White Cube by Brecht Vandenbroucke, which is about pink twins (?) who have a destructive interest in art. It’s a series of individual pieces, rather than an ongoing narrative, and in it they basically approve or disapprove of artworks – and, when they disapprove, are likely to destroy. The humour in it is quite dark and violent – and often a bit obvious, though there are moments of wit that I did enjoy. Overall, it had something of the psychotic about it that was doubtless the intention, but left me rather cold.

White Cube

So, there’s my history of graphic books to date. I can’t think of any others that I’ve read, actually, so I’m certainly not the most experienced at this medium – but it’s something I’d like to explore more, and had hoped to stumble across a new favourite when I visited Gosh! – but it was not to be, that time at least.

Are you enamoured with the world of graphic novels and graphic books, or have you steered clear? And what would you recommend?


Tea or Books? #20: first vs third person and Cider With Rosie vs My Family and Other Animals

Tea or Books logoHappy birthday us! We actually passed our birthday by a couple of weeks, but this is the first podcast after the big day. Can you believe it’s been a whole year? And it might be our longest episode yet.

In episode 20 we tackle first person vs third person (with, spoilers, some confusion and no research at all) and two wonderful childhood memoirs – Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. It’s a tricky decision, guys (and, of course, the correct decision is to read both).

Check out our iTunes page (rate! review! I’m sick of the ‘not enough ratings to show’ text) or listen via your podcast app of choice. And don’t forget that my brother has a movies podcast that you might enjoy too.

Let us know which you’d choose in each category! Here are the books and authors we mention today…

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Orphan Island by Rose Macaulay
The Rain Girl by Herbert Jenkins
A Cup of Tea for Mr Thorgill by Storm Jameson
A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Cazalet Chronicles series by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Poor Relations by Compton Mackenzie
Speaking of Love by Angela Young
Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman
Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Emma by Jane Austen
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Art of the Novel ed. Nicholas Royle
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Rose Macaulay
Beryl Bainbridge
Muriel Spark
Barbara Pym
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Richmal Crompton
Margaret Atwood
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Impassioned Clay by Stevie Davies
The Great Gatsy by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Laurence Durrell
William Shakespeare

50 Books: winner

Thank you so much to everyone who entered the prize draw in celebration of the completed 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About – it was such fun seeing which ones people had read, and which you’d choose to win.

I’m delighted to announce that the winner (drawn at random from random.org; too many entrants for Patch to cope with this time) is… Lynaia, who chose Frost at Morning as a prize. An excellent choice – but, of course, I’d say that for all of them!

Lynaia – I’ll be in touch.

Back from Edinburgh

Loving the comments on the 50 Books competition post – do keep ’em coming! I think I’ll do the prize draw on Monday.

The long train journey is over, and I am back from a fun, rainy, book-filled week in Edinburgh. Said train journey was slightly spoiled by a group of people blasting out music from their speakers for a solid two hours. So loud, so rude. We were all too British to say anything, but complained to each other once they’d left.

I had a lovely time – a highlight being seeing Karen/Cornflower. And I went to eight or nine bookshops while in Edinburgh, and bought 15 books. Two of them, I realised afterwards, were books I already owned (oops) so I passed them onto a friend I was staying with – and here are the 13 I brought back with me. Incidentally, the best bookshop I went to was Armchair Books – a great selection of reasonably-priced books, though the hardbacks were all on shelves that were unreachable without stools or a stepladder. I perched precariously on a stepladder at one point. But if there are Rose Macaulay books on a shelf I can’t see properly, I’m gonna get a stepladder.

Edinburgh books 2016

The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield ed. J. Middleton Murray
The Life of Katherine Mansfield by Ruth Mantz
I’ve seen these a few times, but never at a tempting price – so I was pleased to stumble across them in Till’s bookshop. Both are Constable hardbacks, and were part of JMM’s rather energetic series of Mansfield-related publications just after her death.

The Rain Girl by Herbert Jenkins
We all know that I loved Patricia Brent, Spinster, so it was great to find one of Jenkins’ other books in a lovely edition – this one was on a high-up shelf in Armchair Books.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov
I could feel Kaggsy watching me when I picked this one up – a Pushkin and a Russian! It sounds so intriguing – about a man who reads a short story which describes a murder he had himself committed. What comes next…?

Orphan Island by Rose Macaulay
Armchair Books had loads of Macaulay books, though this was the only one I didn’t already own – and one that I have kept an eye out for for a long time. Hurrah! (Must read some more Macaulays. Have so many unread.)

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
I need to read more Bowen, and I think she’ll come up on ‘Tea or Books?’ at some point – but which? Maybe this one?

Paul Kelver by Jerome K. Jerome
I keep buying JKJ books, don’t I? Hadn’t heard of this one before, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it sometime.

A Cup of Tea for Mr Thorgill by Storm Jameson
Another one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for such a long time, and have only read some non-fic articles by her. This one, I’ll admit, I bought chiefly because I really love that cover.

Letters of Siegfried Sassoon and Max Beerbohm
Who knew these gents wrote to each other? Well, probably loads of people. But not I! (My Max Beerbohm shelf is growing at a fast rate…)

Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist by Joan Bennett
I’m not the sort of guy who’ll leave behind a book about Virginia Woolf – particularly an early one.

All The Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim
How did I not own this before? Being a cat person more than a dog person, I’m not sure this lens will work for me – but I’ll find out. (NB must enthuse more about Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All The Books of My Life, which is wonderful.)

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
More Cunningham for my Cunningham shelf – yes please.

A Sea-Grape Tree by Rosamond Lehmann
I think I might own all of Lehmann’s novels now, and have still only read one (Dusty Answer) – but now I have even more choice.

50 Books: a prize draw!


So, after 9 and a bit years, I have come to the end of my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About! That feels like cause for celebration – and I’ll celebrate by offering up (almost) any one of them as a prize! All you have to do comment with how many you’ve read, and which one you’d like to win.

The list – which is in no particular order, btw – can be seen down the right-hand column, or in a table at the bottom of this post. This competition is open to anybody and any country.

(For prize, reasons of scarcity/expense mean I wouldn’t be offering The Lark or Scar Tissue, I’m afraid. Oh, and copies of any title will probably be secondhand, as many/most of them aren’t in print!)

A bit of background: when I started up Stuck-in-a-Book, I wanted it to reflect my taste in literature – which has a heavy leaning towards the neglected and unjustly forgotten. And an ongoing list of books I thought especially deserved attention seemed like a great thread to keep going. Quite a few of them came in the first year of blogging (which is why quite a few of the blog reviews they link to are a bit embarrassing to me – none of us love our earliest reviews, do we?) and I’ve been eking it out for the whole time I’ve been blogging so far. The only rules were that I’d have one book per author, and it couldn’t be too well known – though some of these probably don’t quite fall into the obscure category.

I love me some stats. Here you are…

  • 34 books by women; 15 books by men; 1 book by a man and a woman.
  • 33 fiction; 17 non-fiction (though the fiction does include a few strongly autobiographical books).
  • 3 books in translation.
  • 13 living authors; 39 dead authors (52 authors in total because two of the books are volumes of letters between two people).
  • I was going to do something about average date, but that would require rather too much digging around. Evelina is the oldest and Speaking of Love the newest, though, I’d imagine.
  • It’s not the most diverse in terms of author nationality, but does include British, American, Canadian, New Zealander, French, Hungarian, and Finnish.
  • The list includes a father and son, a husband and wife, and somebody with my aunt’s name. Also three people I’ve met in real life.

Happy choosing!

50: The Lost Europeans – Emanuel Litvinoff 25. The Enchanted Places – Christopher Milne
49. The Lark – E. Nesbit 24. Deceived With Kindness – Angelica Garnett
48. Nuts in May – Cornelia Otis Skinner 23. White Cargo – Felicity Kendal
47. The Shelf – Phyllis Rose 22. The L-Shaped Room – Lynne Reid Banks
46. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends – Penelope Fitzgerald 21. The Long Afternoon – Giles Waterfield
45. Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins 20. Frost at Morning – Richmal Crompton
44. Phantoms on the Bookshelves – Jacques Bonnet 19. As It Was and World Without End – Helen Thomas
43. Skylark – Dezső Kosztolányi 18. The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow – Jerome K. Jerome
42. Stet – Diana Athill 17. The Love-Child – Edith Olivier
41. Guard Your Daughters – Diana Tutton 16. The Haunted Woman – David Lindsay
40. More Women Than Men – Ivy Compton-Burnett 15. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – Barbara Comyns
39. One Fine Day – Mollie Panter-Downes 14. Speaking of Love – Angela Young
38. The Element of Lavishness – William Maxwell & Sylvia Townsend Warner 13. Lady Into Fox – David Garnett
37. Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim 12. Portraits – Kate Chopin
36. The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton 11. Ex Libris – Anne Fadiman
35. Love of Seven Dolls – Paul Gallico 10. Joyce & Ginnie – The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham
34. William – E.H. Young 09. One Pair of Hands – Monica Dickens
33. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck 08. Scar Tissue – Ruth Mary Hills
32. Loitering With Intent – Muriel Spark 07. Watching the English – Kate Fox
31. Being George Devine’s Daughter – Harriet Devine 06. Evelina – Frances Burney
30. Nella Last’s War – Nella Last 05. It’s Too Late Now – A.A. Milne
29. Howards End is on the Landing – Susan Hill 04. Miss Hargreaves – Frank Baker
28. We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson 03. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – Thad Carhart
27. Selected Stories – Katherine Mansfield 02. The Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield
26. Literary Lapses – Stephen Leacock 01. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson



The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The Bottle Factory OutingIt’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, guys! Somehow, I haven’t actually read any more books by Beryl Bainbridge since the last week organised by Annabel – during which I read Injury TimeSweet William, and Something Happened Last Week, reviews of all of which you can find under my Bainbridge tag by clicking on the tag above or choosing ‘Bainbridge’ from the dropdown Browse menu. Well, I’m very glad that Annabel resurrected this reading week, as it has brought The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) to the top of my tbr pile – and it was everything I would expect from Beryl.

I actually read the whole thing on train journeys to and from London – i.e. it’s pretty short. And I even finally managed to stop calling it The Bottle Factory Opening in my head; it is, after all, focused on an outing rather than a grand opening. That is the main ‘event’ of the novel: all the workers at the bottle factory are going to go on a picnic, from the families of immigrants who put up with the low wages offered to the two women who are the focus of the novel, and who stick labels on wine bottles (while maintaining that all the wines are the same).

The Bottle Factory Outing would work very well with other novels I grouped back when I was doing Five From the Archive regularly (I must bring that back) and grouped together five excellent books about pairs of women. It’s chiefly about Freda and Brenda, who have a typically Bainbridgian dysfunctional relationship. They’re not quite friends – they moved in together after a moment of misunderstanding, and they’re not particularly compatible as housemates. Not even housemates: they share a bed, with a bolster and a line of books down the middle.

Freda is forthright and confident; Brenda is nervous and awkward. But nobody in a Beryl Bainbridge novel deals well with others (it seems) and she lends the same spikiness and discomfort to The Bottle Factory Outing that I’ve come to love elsewhere. There is affection and well-meaning alongside, but of the sort that cannot survive the awkwardness of everyday encounters.

Oh, and Beryl is funny. This awkwardness definitely permeates into both humour and unpleasantness. This paragraph combines the two…

She couldn’t think how to discourage him – she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly ‘Please don’t, Rossi,’ but he tickled and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.

‘You are a nice clean girl.’

‘Oh, thank you.’

It’s basically assault, of course, but the mattress comment is quintessential Bainbridge – a moment of levity thrown in that also illuminates the situation and gives a unique description.

And the outing? Well, it is not free from disaster. And it is the culmination of the different strands of the novel in a dramatic way that one feels Bainbridge has earned throughout; every moment leading up to it somehow both dramatic and mundane at once, wrapped together in her slightly distorted view of the world. She finds the bizarre amongst the ordinary, and somehow turns it back upon itself to seem ordinary too. It’s been great to get back to Beryl.

The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff

Lost-EuropeansJudging by the number of comments, reviews where I get you to click somewhere else aren’t necessarily as popular as reviews here – but THIS one is hopefully different because, guys… THIS IS THE LAST BOOK ON MY 50 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BUT MAY NOT HAVE HEARD ABOUT. (That list is over in the right-hand column, fyi.)

The list has been going since I started the blog in April 2007, although it has slowed over the years as I ran out of the backlog of titles I wanted to add, and worried about the end drawing near.

Do I start another list? Don’t know. But watch this space for a little celebration of 50 Books next week.

ANYWAY The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff is the book in question. It was published in 1958 and is about Germany after the war, and what it was like to visit as a Jewish German who was evacuated to England. But what makes it so good is Litvinoff’s extraordinary writing.

It doesn’t hurt that the book is beautifully produced too.

Head over to Shiny New Books to read all my thoughts, but here is the beginning of my review. And look out for 50 Books celebration and PRIZE next week!

Have you ever had the experience of starting a novel and, before you’ve got to the end of the second page, you are so bowled away by the writing that you already know that you’ve found one of the best books you’ll read that year? It happens to me very seldom – Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude did the sane thing – but it certainly happened with Emanuel Litvinoff’s 1958 novel The Lost Europeans, reprinted as part of a beautiful new series by Apollo.