Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight): Émile Zola

★★★★

Les Rougon-Macquart: Book 11

My first book of 2020 was Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Delight, part of Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart cycle, which explores various facets of 19th-century French life. This is the first time I’ve read Zola and I wondered whether it would matter that I was leaping right in at Book 11 of the series, but in fact Au Bonheur des Dames works perfectly as a standalone novel. No doubt I would have recognised certain characters if I’d read the other books, and I may have known a little more background about Octave Mouret, but I didn’t feel that I was missing out. I chose to start here because it’s supposed to be one of Zola’s more upbeat and cheerful novels – perfect for the start of a new year – and it was rather fitting for January, in that it focuses on the rise and development of a great department store. Zola writes of ‘the continuous purring of a machine at work, the customers shovelled in, heaped in front of the displays and dazzled by the goods, before being hurled against the cash desks‘. Well, in last week’s sales I was one of those being hurled, and so it added an extra level of interest and amusement to hear about how such great shops came into being. A fascinating story of a time of frenzied change.

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Maddy Alone: Pamela Brown

★★★½

The Blue Door: Book II

In the wake of Mishima, I needed something totally different: something charming, cuddly and heartwarming. With relief, I turned to the second book in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door series (the first was The Swish of the Curtainwhich I reviewed some time ago), telling the story of a band of ambitious children who set up a theatre company in their small town of Fenchester. In this sequel, the older children have achieved their dreams and are now studying at stage school in London, but poor Maddy, the youngest, is only twelve years old and has been told she needs to stick with ordinary school for the time being. Pushed to her limits by the thought of all the fun the others are having, Maddy begins acting up; but soon she discovers a marvellous opportunity right on her doorstep, which will change her life once and for all.

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Aspects of Love: David Garnett

★★

I know virtually nothing about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Aspects of Love, except for the song Love Changes Everything, which was on a CD we used to play in the car during long journeys. I certainly didn’t know that the musical was based on a book, still less that said book was a product of the Bloomsbury Group. When I stumbled across it by chance, I decided that I simply had to give it a go – though I can’t say that I enjoyed it. It’s a self-indulgent triumph of style over substance and, while it’s a quick read at fewer than 150 pages, it lingers in the mind for the wrong reasons: for its unpleasant aura of exploitation and emotional manipulation. It becomes even more sinister when you realise that it was inspired by events in Garnett’s own life.

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Jumping the Queue: Mary Wesley

★★★

I read The Camomile Lawn as a student and, being young and naive, was impressed by its suave, sophisticated, witty characters. With this in mind, I happily snaffled Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue when I found it on a bookshop expedition to Winchester with H. Now I wonder whether, if I were to reread The Camomile Lawn, I would find there the negatives that I noticed here alongside the wit and sophistication: detached indifference; clever people behaving horribly to one another; a rather nihilistic view of the world. What, really, is the point? That’s the question we find the recently widowed Matilda Poliport contemplating as the book starts. Carrying a basket of wine, cheese and fresh bread, she’s heading down to the beach for a picnic before she ends it all. When her plans are frustrated, she heads back to a life that she thought she had all neatly tied up; but this time she has an unexpected companion: a soul almost as lost as she is. Be warned. This is not a cosy piece of classic fiction. This is fiction with claws. And teeth.

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A Breath of French Air: H.E. Bates

★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 2

All might be radiant and perfick in the Kent countryside, but everyone needs a holiday now and again. With Mariette wilting under low spirits, and Ma growing weary of her newborn Oscar’s incessant demands for milk, Pa lets himself be convinced that they could really do with a trip to France. It does require persuasion, of course, because Pa finds it hard to believe that anywhere could be more lovely than home – but the one thing he loves more than home is his family, and he’s willing to do anything to make them happy. Encouraged by the enthusiastic Charley – who spent summers in Brittany as a child – Pa begins to pick up a few useful phrases of French, and the whole Larkin family piles into the Rolls and sets off for a spot of continental leisure.

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The Darling Buds of May: H.E. Bates

★★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 1

I have vague memories of watching the Darling Buds of May TV series in the early 1990s, although I was too young for much to register. The word ‘perfick’ made an impression, of course, and I remember that, every time Catherine Zeta-Jones came on screen as Mariette, my dad would shake his head and say, “I don’t know what they see in her”. I also grew to assume that my paternal grandmother, a farmer’s wife who died when I was small, must have been pretty much like Pam Ferris’s Ma Larkin. But plot? I honestly couldn’t remember much. As the first tenuous signs of spring try to force their way through the rain and sharp winds here in London, I decided I needed a bit of bucolic escapism and bought myself the book (and its sequels). And it was just the ticket. Warm, generous, sun-drenched: a world of strawberry-picking and white tablecloths in orchards on warm evenings; where all guests are welcome and, if you like it well enough, you don’t ever have to leave. Perfick indeed.

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The Swish of the Curtain: Pamela Brown

★★★★

The Blue Door: Book I

Pamela Brown was fourteen when she wrote this, her first novel, although it wasn’t published until 1941, when she was a venerable sixteen. It was the first of a series and became a beloved children’s classic, cited as a favourite by Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins among others. And it’s no accident that it appeals particularly to actors, because the Blue Door series follows the fortunes of a very special theatre company, set up by a particularly ambitious and determined group of children. It all begins when a new family moves into the Corner House in Fenchester. Across the road, two sets of siblings keep a watchful eye out: Sandra Fayne and her little sister Maddy from one side of the fence; Lyn Darwin and her brother Jeremy from the other. Soon it transpires that there are no fewer than three new children at the Corner House. The stage is set – literally – for a wonderful summer adventure that promises to become something much, much bigger.

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A Good School: Richard Yates

★★★½

This is the first novel I’ve read by Richard Yates, although Revolutionary Road has been on my TBR list ever since the film (which I haven’t actually seen) came out. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a vague sense of classic American sensibilities being placed under the microscope. In a sense, this semi-autobiographical novel was an easy way in, playing to my interest in school stories, as it follows the young William Grove through two years at the isolated Dorset Academy in Connecticut. Around Grove’s story swirls those of the other boys and the masters at this odd, struggling school; while Pearl Harbour looms on the horizon, and war threatens to change the Dorset boys forever.

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Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

★★★★

I remember Helen wrote about this with enthusiasm some years ago and, since then, I’ve been keen to read it. Fortunately I found a copy during a very ‘productive’ recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and pounced upon it with great glee as ideal summer reading. Although I’ve had Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels sitting on my shelf for some time, this is the first of her books that I’ve actually read and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But with delight I found myself drawn into its deliciously Gothic modern tale of a governess in a remote French chateau: a tale of avarice, greed and attempted murder. After all, when you are alone in the world, who can you trust?

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Bite-Sized Fiction

Bite-Sized Books

I’m thoroughly enjoying this bite-sized books theme. It’s given me the chance to leap in at the deep end with all sorts of books, offering a taster of different genres or themes that might lead on to new explorations, but which don’t require too much investment of time or money. So here’s a further selection of stories to see you through commutes or short journeys. They include tales by some of the great names of modern literature, several of whom I hadn’t encountered before, namely William Trevor, Anita Brookner (shameful, I know), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. From works of searing feminism to bittersweet studies of modern life and reworked fairy stories, there’s something here for everyone.

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