I adore bookshops. I actually like them more than I like the books I often purchase from them. I liked one particular bookshop so much I married the manager, but therein lies another tale. In this summer of chilly discontent, many people aren’t going on holiday. This is a great shame, and this year – like 2009 – is the year when the mercury has failed spectacularly to go anywhere above freezing and when nothing could be nicer than a fortnight in the Algarve. But, frankly, I don’t know anyone who is going abroad for a holiday this summer. Britain is tightening her pretty little purses and, frankly, it has never been so easy to get an excellent restaurant table in London in mid-week.
Just because we are not going on holiday doesn’t mean we can forsake our holiday reading, however, and for me a bank holiday is not a bank holiday without a rollicking good read. So, welcome to the Bluebird Book Club – we serve coffee as good as Rome’s Cafe Greco, we serve home made apple tart, and we bitch about writers by cosy lamplight whilst investigating a diverse series of authors. Also – unlike ordinary book clubs – I suggest the circumstances in which you should read these books – and when you most certainly should not. Draw your chairs up, kids. Pencils to the ready..
Over the last two weeks though I have gone schizo. Or eclectic. Or nuts. Either way, my choices have been broad. The first book was Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started Early, Took my Dog. Those of you who salivated over Jason Isaacs in Case Histories on the BBC earlier this year will rediscover his literary incarnation, Jackson Brodie, here. This is a police thriller set in two timelines – one the pre-Yorkshire Ripper Yorkshire of the mid 1970s and the other in the present day. Brodie is one of three main characters which are neatly dovetailed into Atkinson’s narrative. The other two principal characters are an ageing stage actress losing her marbles (Atkinson is bitterly accurate on the interior monologue that goes on in the head of an ageing luvvie) and a lonely, chubby security officer called Tracy, who is retiring. One day Tracy does something which changes everything. Of course I’m not going to tell you what it is. Jackson Brodie is a fascinating rootless sort of character, driving around the county of his youth (Yorkshire) bemoaning the loss of its industrial backbone and becoming increasingly enchanted by the county’s medieval relics. The author recaps on Jackson’s somewhat diffident love history for those of us new to Brodie (like me) so we don’t feel entirely all at sea. Despite the book weighing in at 420-ish pages, it is a deceptively quick read, with Atkinson’s dark and laugh-out-loud humour keeping the prose and narrative taut throughout. The only negative point Iwould make is that this is easily 50 pages or so too long, but these 50 will fly by.
TO BE READ : on a summer’s day when the rain is unpleasantly battering on the window and you are in the mood for a fast-paced thriller. In bed. If you love dogs. If you enjoyed Life on Mars. Accompanied by : strong cup of coffee and a hob nob, a no-nonsense biscuit as grainy and rough as the Yorkshire Moors themselves.
NOT TO BE READ: If you are in the Yorkshire Moors at night. If you are in the West Yorkshire police force or have ever been in the West Yorkshire police force. If you are a prostitute. If you find blood and gore hard to take.
A good ghost story should creep silently under your skin. It is a short step from “Reading a terribly good ghost story” to shivering and wailing alone in the night, terrified and unable to sleep. This is from the same writer who gave us The Woman in Black which is still running in the West End startling people nightly, after 23 years. And The Woman in Black is scary. I used to know someone whose job it was to go around the theatre after every performance and check the arm rests were still attached to the seats, as people would rip them away in shock during the final scene. The Small Hand is a quick book – you can read it in a couple of hours. The prose is sparse, the story is traditional. It features an antiquarian bookseller who has an odd experience in an isolated rural garden and starts to send cold chills down the back of the neck forthwith. There are terrible, wind-thrashed country drives down remote Spanish hillsides, freaky old ladies (nothing is more frightening) and – of course – some sinister monks thrown in for good measure. Hill is a master of pace. She knows how to unnerve and delivers the scenes in a calm, pragmatic tone that belies the eerie content. Strangely, the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, despite the various loose ends being competently wound into place. But the thrill of a ghost story is still rendered intact.
TO BE READ: on a bright day when you are feeling full of fortitude and gumption. In a built up area. If you are one of those people who like a bit of a scare. Accompanied by: chocolate – soothes feelings of ghostly anxiety, with a hipster flask of brandy nearby from which you can take steadying nips throughout.
NOT TO BE READ: At night, on your own, in the countryside, or if you have a fear of water.
The History of Love is an extraordinary book – but, again I am behind the times here, as I believe it was nominated for an Orange Prize in 2006. To tell you the truth, I am still 70 pages from the end, and fully expect the complex plot to wrap rings around my frontal lobe, but it reminded me – a bit – of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife in which alternative realities exist in the different spaces for the same character. It is rather self-referential – but it is written incredibly deftly and is the only book I think I have ever read that made me cry with laughter and then, one paragraph further, reduced me to a weeping, soggy mess on the carpet. The History of Love is about a book – rare and only ever published once in Chile in a small pressing – called The History of Love. Much comment is made regarding this book’s somewhat traumatic beginnings, its authorship and in particular its principal character, Alma, quite clearly the love of the novelist’s life. But who is the novelist? This novel spans Israel, South America, Spain, New York and England and never quite rests at all. A stunningly beautiful read – the ending of which I simply cannot guess. The principal character is called Leo Gursky, an elderly Polish Jew now living in America who is terrified that no one will notice when he dies. He tries to be disruptive in public places and create commotions to ensure remembrance. Then there is a young girl desperately trying to counteract her mother’s life of loneliness and trying not to worry that she has a brother called Bird who has convinced himself he is the messiah. It’s about lost words as much as it is about lost people and lost hearts. I cannot wait to read the next Krauss novel Great House, having read this one. It’s truly extraordinary, although the structure may frustrate some people.
TO BE READ: If you like books about the nature of books, if you are interested in Jewish migration, think old people are highly amusing, if you are a frustrated author and if you believe in true love. To be accompanied by: a good cup of tea. No food necessary. You’ll have to concentrate enough on the plot, never mind a sandwich.
NOT TO BE READ: If you are frustrated ever by a novel’s lack of action, if you are a misogynist or if you really don’t like the name ALMA.
This is a re-read. This spanking new edition, complete with a foreword by actor Alan Cumming, has heralded a mini-Mitford revival. In its wake another of Mitford’s novels, Wigs On the Green (a satire of British fascism of the 1930s and one that made Nancy fall out with her sister Diana and brother in law Oswald Mosley, who Nancy had clearly lampooned) has been republished for the first time since 1935. Too sensitive for re-issue in the years after World War II? Or just not as brilliant or dazzling as Mitford’s others? I’ll let you know when I’ve read it. It’s next on my list. This book, Love In A Cold Climate, has never been out of print, and is one of Mitford’s most wonderful and enduring novels, along with Pursuit of Love. Mitford’s world is eccentric, often sexually amoral, slightly nutty and concerns itself with minor aristocratic affairs of the heart. Although written just after the war, her two best known novels are set in the 1920s and 1930s, in an unmistakably inter-war milieu. She is a master of humourous writing and shares Waugh’s talent for wonderfully funny speech. Please, please read Pursuit of Love first, if you plan to read this. Love in a Cold Climate is set at the same time and features some of the same people. It tells the story of Polly Hampton, and her rather intimidating parents, Lord & Lady Montdore, through the eyes of Fanny, a young debutante and the daughter of a rarely seen woman called “The Bolter”. Fanny’s anxiety about the upper-class world of the Hamptons and their parties suddenly disappears when kind, quite, beautiful, perfect Polly falls in love, with her own uncle. Courageously, Mitford produces one of the most openly gay characters I can think of in mid-twentieth century literature. The Montdores have no son; and are concerned that the inheritor of their incredible possessions is destined to be a stranger from Nova Scotia. When Cedric Hampton arrives, in blue sunglasses, and proceeds to give the elderly Lady Montdore a stunning, gay makeover, it’s enough to make any reader guffaw with joyous laughter. No one seems to mind that he is rather “mauve” and all the women instantly go shopping with him. Like Wodehouse, Mitford is divorced from much of the world’s poverty. But, even if you decide you’re not in the mood to read her, after five minutes of this book, you’ll find that you are. If this book was a foodstuff it would be one of those boxes of miniature Green & Black’s chocolates : rich, biting, sweetly luxurious – and you feel immediately better afterwards. And for those of you keen to write off Ms Mitford with a gesture of shallowness, she was an ardent Francophile who also churned out historical biographies of high profile French peeps, as well as translating works of literature from her home in France. So there.
TO BE READ : When you wish to take cover from a brutal and uncaring world. In the bath. At cocktail hour. At a country house weekend. When you want to be a tourist to the upper classes for a day. To be accompanied by: A morning Bloody Mary before Giles takes the dogs out on the hunt. A stiff pre-dinner G&T. A slice of tarte tatin in tribute to Ms Mitford’s French escapades.
NOT TO BE READ: If you are a Marxist, if you dislike hearing about parties and dresses, if you dislike eccentrics or if you are Oswald Mosley (which you probably aren’t.)
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