Book Review: The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

Sometimes when you request a book from a publisher you really strike gold. And that is exactly what happened when I received The Caravaners from Handheld Press. I saw it on Bookish Twitter, was intrigued by the cover and it’s feminist roots and plucked up the courage to ask. I cannot thank the publishers enough for my gifted copy.

It was a joy from start to finish. I would have read it in one sitting if life and time allowed but to be honest I would have missed a treat had I done so. This intelligent and deeply humorous book is one to be savoured.

At it’s simplest level The Caravaners is the story of what occurs when Baron Otto Von Ottringel, an officer in the Prussian Army and his wife, Edelgard, join a caravanning tour of Kent in the early part of the last century. First published in 1909, it is a book that reflects the growing English/ German tension which will ultimately erupt in the First World War.

When reviewing books I find I often end with ‘the bit about the author’ but in this case I feel this information key to understanding the context and mood of the novel.

Elizabeth Von Arnim is the pen name of Mary Annette Beauchamp. Born in Australia to British parents, she was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield. Married to a Prussian, Count von Arnim, she was perfectly placed to observe the differences between the two cultures and comment on the growing feeling of German Nationalism, generated and fuelled by Kasier Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria.

At time of writing the political and cultural gulf between Britain and Germany was beginning to widen. As Germany began to build up her navy and the Kaiser appeared slowly more unpredictable and dangerous, von Arnim took further inspiration for her novel from her own experiences.

In 1907 Elizabeth von Arnim had hired two caravans and for the month of August set off to explore the Kentish countryside with a group including teenage daughters, ex tutors – E M Forster amongst the number – family and friends.

In the true spirit of the English summer it rained, quite a lot it would seem, with one of the party only recalling 3 days of sun throughout the trip. Add in the complications of horses, outdoor cooking and in this case illness and the holiday was not without it’s fair share of challenges.

But as a microcosm of rising German / English tension, the setting of a caravanning adventure is inspired. And no one could be a better guide than the pompous Baron von Ottringel.

It is the Baron who is our narrator throughout the ill fated trip. Through his eyes we see the events but his words provide an immediate and achingly funny juxtaposition with actual motivations and occurrences.

Significantly older than his long suffering wife of 5 years Edlegard, the Baron is continually bemused by the behaviour and ‘moral’ code of his English counterparts. His pomposity and nationalism is immediately representative of the Kaiser himself.

The Baron is always concerned with outward appearance. He is convinced that others are looking upon him as a great leader. Even his motivation for being persuaded to change his holiday plans are bound up in how he believes others will see him.

And then to travel through it in one of those conveyances was so distinctly original that we would be objects of the liveliest interest during the succeeding winter gaieties in Storchwerder. ‘The von Ottringels are certainly modern,’ we could already hear our friends saying to each other…We should be the centre of attention.

The Caravaners- Pg 15

Notice the us of ‘we’. This is of huge importance , for the Baron does not see his wife as anything more than an extension of himself. Edelgard is purely there for his convenience, to serve and to admire. It is her duty, her pleasure and her honour. Women in the Baron’s mind are simple creatures, subservient to men and at their best when silent and attentive.

Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.

The Caravaners- Pg 73

Indeed the whole idea of a holiday only came about due to the Baron’s anger at his first wife for dying. Any grief he might have felt for the poor woman was rapidly consumed by his realisation that he would not reach the socially defining mark of a Silver Wedding anniversary and it acquired social standing. Therefore this tour with his second wife is actually to celebrate 25 years of marriage to his first!

The Baron swings from being chauvinistic to down right cruel. His blunt and brief reference to the death of his children, is heartless…

I myself have never been a father…that is, strictly, I was one twice, but only for so few minutes each time that they can hardly be said to count.

The Caravaners- Pg 20

And the revelation he sold his present wife’s dog upon there marriage is a further indication of the character of the man.

‘She shed tears, I remember, in quantities more suited to fourteen than twenty-four..

The Caravaners- Pg 154

So where, you may ask is the humour in this book. Take in just Baron von Ottringel alone and it seems just a rather bleak character portrait of a nasty man.

Well the humour I can is everywhere. It may be be rather dark but the humour is in the clear mismatch between the actions and reactions of the other characters and the woefully misguided interpretation of the Baron.

From the very beginning of the trip the Baron is isolated and ignored. Other characters quite literally scuttle to the four corners of the camp at his appearance.

For the Baron is entirely at sea in this tight knit community. It is a group that crosses class and gender with a refreshing level of equality and freedom and it terrifies him. He can not bring himself to associate with Browne, the young trainee Clergy man and finds the free will and outspokenness of the women in the party unbearable.

As his wife begins to rebel, lifting her skirts by a few inches, refusing to perform simple task for him and choosing to walk and talk with others, he begins to lose his grip on his carefully ordered world. Yet at no point does he look to his own behaviour to explain the changes. He is a man with a sense of his own importance but no level of self awareness.

Instead he blames his wife’s own weakness. He believes that she has allowed herself to become infected by the English company and their loose ways of living.

Therefore I had little time for reflection on the new side of her nature the English atmosphere was bringing out…

The Caravaners- Pg105

The juxtaposition of the Baron’s pompous and self assured narrative, alongside the readers interpretation of the actions of other characters is a master stroke of satire. Baron von Ottringel is perpetually seen to be misunderstanding situations, misreading characters and making a fool of himself. I found myself laughing out loud, repeatedly cringing but crucially never once feeling a modicum of sympathy.

Because at his heart Baron von Ottringel is a dangerous and cold hearted man. A man who is motivated by pride and nationalism. And when those core values are undermined, when he is challenged then his sense of reason is unstable. Buried in the narrative is a chilling reminder that this holiday is a mere snap shot in the marriage of the Baron and Edelgard. When faced with her defiance, he begins to ponder and plan his course of action…

However, a reasonable man knows how to wait. He does not, not being a woman, hasten and perhaps spoil a crisis by rushing at it. And if no opportunity should present itself for weeks, would there not be years in our flat in Storchwerder consisting solely of opportunities?

The Caravaners- pg 109

Here is a warning to the reader. When this holiday is over, as it surely will be, then someone will pay the price. In the context of The Caravaners it is likely to be Edelgard, in the wider context of Europe we can now all look back with terrible hindsight, as we neatly return to the theme of German / English tensions.

Through brilliant satire and social commentary Elizabeth von Arnim wrote a powerful warning, focusing on the changing attitudes across Europe and suggesting that trouble was not far away. How right she was.

Rachel x

Blog Tour Review: Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt

It is my absolute pleasure to be on the blog tour for Plenty Under the Counter by Kathleen Hewitt. This novel is one of four books written during the Second World War that have been reissued as part of the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classic series and released to commemorate the 70 year anniversary of the outbreak of war this September.

Plenty Under the Counter was written in 1943. Centred on and created against the backdrop of a capital city emerging from the ravages of the Blitz, the novel captures the mood and experiences of wartime London.

The hero of the novel is Flight – Lieutenant David Heron, and we find him on the final week of his convalescence leave. Having recently fallen in love, Heron is determined to make the most of his last week of freedom. But his plans to spend time with nurse Tess Carmichael are some what thwarted by the discovery of a body in the garden of his boarding house.

Intelligent, some what charming, an actor in the prewar years Heron is quickly drawn in to the intrigue surrounding the crime and consequently his last week is full of mystery, suspicion and not inconsiderable danger.

As the boarding house becomes the centre of the police investigation the spotlight is firmly on it’s residents, who all reveal themselves to be a complex and some what surprising collection of individuals.

Mrs Meake, or ‘Meakie’, is a long-standing friend of Heron’s. An ex- showgirl herself, she runs the boarding house with a skilled hand. Her nemesis is her rather mysterious and difficult daughter Thelma who’s associations and whereabouts are often difficult to pin down.

Terry Lipscott, is a merchant navy man. Often away from home, his appearance just after the murder is questionable, particularly when it comes to light he has been hiding a young woman in his room.

Miss Trindle, a rather naïve spinster, with a possible murky past moves out on the morning following the murder. Is her haste as she claims to distance herself from a house of ill repute or is there something more sinister behind it?

And what of the German Dr Hauptmann, quiet, unassuming but watchful? And Mr Cumberbatch, reclusive, always needing his coal replenished and seemingly obsessed with a dead wife? And don’t forget Annie the extraordinarily large new maid, desperate to confess to a murder she seems unlikely to have committed.

So begins, and I mean begins, for this list is by no means exhaustive, a cast of colourful characters all bound up in this web of intrigue. Hewitt repeatedly proves herself unrivalled in the ability to create engaging characters, principally through the use of dialogue. I would estimate that at least 60 percent of the novel is written in this form and it is the stronger for it. There is an immediate and vibrant sense of personality and colour that leaps off the page. So much so that it often feels that the reader is seated in the front row in a fast moving and beguiling play.

For the plot definitely zips along. The investigation is framed quite clearly by David Heron’s week of leave, meaning there isn’t time for any dilly dallying. And meaning we are treated to some expert plotting and beautiful character interactions. This isn’t a novel that gets bogged down in lengthy descriptions, it is character and action that drive it forward in the most convincing way.

It might be a timeless ‘who dunnit’ tale, entertaining and with a constant undertone of pathos and humour, but Hewitt has also clearly captured the essence of the time period.

The very title Plenty Under The Counter encapsulates the reality of the war. It is a time of shortage and making do. It is a time of great pulling together but also of some opportunistic activities and underhand dealing. There is the feeling that the war and the extreme of circumstances around it have brought people’s inherent characteristics to the fore, for good or evil.

Reading and reviewing this book has been an absolute pleasure. I enjoyed every word. However when Anne Cater extended her invitation to be involved it was a personal reason that made me accept.

My lovely Grandad passed away this year. He was 96 and had been a Tank Driver in WW2. Having served in Africa, he ended the war in Italy fighting in the battle of Monte Cassino. I was hoping we would get to commemorate this milestone Anniversary together but it was unfortunately not to be. So being involved in this book tour and the reissue of these period novels feels like my part in honouring my Grandad and those who served alongside him.

About the author

Kathleen Hewitt was a prolific British author who wrote more than twenty novels during her lifetime. A parson’s daughter, she lived a varied and interesting life including fashion designing, modelling and film extra work. Following the break down of her marriage she travelled to South Africa where she lived on a farm. Her return to England saw her open a hat shop in Reading.

She wrote throughout her life but wasn’t published until the age of 39. Her main genre of work was mysteries and thrillers, but she also published her Autobiography The Only Paradise in 1945.

She died in 1980.

And there is more…

For more information, reviews and reactions to Plenty Under The Counter check out the rest of the book tour. Details below…

Blog Tour Book Review: A Shadow On The Lens by Sam Hurcom

I am an absolute sucker for a mystery, but a historical mystery with supernatural tendencies is pretty much one of my gold standards.

So I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour for A Shadow On The Lens, the debut novel of Sam Hurcom. And what a debut it is!

Many thanks go to Tracy Fenton @Compulsive Readers for the opportunity to get stuck into this intriguing book.

So where to begin..

Well the year is 1904 and our narrator, pioneering forensic photographer and police investigator, Thomas Bexley is on his way to rural Wales. Here in a remote village a young girl, Betsan has been found murdered. Her body is abandoned in the local woods, wrapped in chains and burnt.

Yet, despite the grisly nature of the crime Bexley is unfazed. An experienced professional, he approaches his task in a calm and methodical manner. Thomas Bexley is a man of the world, not given to sentiment and possessing of the arrogance of a man in control.

Which makes what happens next all the more unsettling and, I won’t lie dear readers, at times down right terrifying!!

From the moment Bexley arrives in the village it is clear that things are not what seem or indeed should be. Met by Robert Cummings, head of the local council, Thomas is quickly made aware that his presence is resented. Locals are reluctant to talk to him, his accommodation is mean and no one is expecting him to stay around for long.

It is also clear that an air of distaste surrounds the young victim. Betsan was not well respected or even liked within the village. Cummings and his young Constable have her marked as promiscuous, her end inevitable and most likely the work of travellers who have conveniently moved on.

But Thomas is not so quick to judge and sets about conducting a thorough investigation, one that quickly throws up a host of questions and few answers.

Why for example did Betsan and her mother, live in a hovel on the edges of the village?How can the scorch marks at the murder site still be warm hours, even days after the body’s removal? And why is the body being kept away from the village in a church cellar in a remote hamlet, a place that has been deserted by it’s inhabitants? And what role does the memory stricken Colonel and Lord of the Manor have to play in all this?

Bexley’s investigation is further impeded by the fact that the locals believe the death is the work of an evil spirit, they believe inhabits the woodland.

Determine to brush such concerns aside Thomas attempts to forge ahead with his investigation, but are the villagers fears unfounded? As his initial ease grows Bexley finds himself in the grip of a sudden and unexplained fever. Discomfort turns to terror and the boundaries of reality and supernatural are twisted beyond recognition.

Hurcom’s employment of the unreliable narrator, losing himself and his way before our very eyes leads the reader into a dark maze of tangled truths and buried mysteries. Are the terrible visions and unexplained noises, due to Bexley’s malady or something more sinister?

There is a pervading air of madness running throughout the plot. Hurcom has created a cast of characters where no one seem entirely in possession of their wits and the truth is increasingly hard to pin down. And as with all truly great ghost stories the weather plays it’s part. One great storm rages, a storm that recks havoc with the minds and bodies of the story inhabitants, isolating and increasing levels of fear.

The plotting is perfect, a short time frame means that the action moves along at a lick and the pages keep turning. The tale twists and turns in it’s way to discover what truly happened to the unfortunate victim. Hurcom lays many a false trail and leaves you questioning every detail to the last line of the book.

A Shadow On the Lens is a deliciously dark tale combining crime and supernatural happenings. It has all the right ingredients for a truly gothic story; inclement weather, long held myths, terrified locals and a remote location.

And of course a twist…

And there is more…

If you want hear more about this book check out the rest of the blog tour. Details below…

Happy reading


Blog Tour Review : The Last Landlady by Laura Thompson

Social history has always fascinated me. I still harbour a simmering resentment to the well meaning 6th Form tutor who persuaded me that taking History as a third A Level option was a bad idea. Too many essay subjects apparently. Still one of my biggest regrets.

But I digress…

However, the point is any chance I get to read history, particualrly the nitty gritty of social history, then I take it. Over the years I have come to realise that the way the key events of history affect the ‘ordinary’ people is often more interesting and more poignant than the events themselves. And it is always particularly interesting for me to see how these events have affected women.

So when Anne Cater got in touch and invited me on to the tour for Laura Thompson’s book The Last Landlady I jumped at the chance.

Published on 6th September by Unbound, this is at first glance the story of Laura’s Grandmother, Violet , ‘Vi’ to her regulars, who was the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own name.

This is a memoir of the truest kind. There is no delving into the hidden past of Vi’s life, just a simple and often powerful remembering of the author’s formidable Grandmother

“For although I am nostalgic for her – something she would have liked but not really understood – I have no desire to research her. I simply present her, as she presented herself to me, as I remember her at the pub.”

Pg 42 – The Last Landlady – Laura Thompson

Born and raised in a such an establishment, Vi embodied the atmosphere and appeal of the traditional British Pub. Having served in her father’s London pub, keeping spirits up during the Blitz, indeed providing safe haven in the pub’s cellars as the bombs began to fall, Vi was denied the pub’s licence upon her father’s death. It was simply not the done thing to hand such a privilege to a divorced single mother.

When she finally persuaded the brewery to grant her a licence it was of a somewhat run down establishment in the rural home counties. Vi turned that pub into the hub of the community. A place which welcomed all, but was run on certain unspoken but ‘known’ rules; the etiquette of the local pub. It was a place that provided local information, possibly gossip, often solice, understanding and comfort, and importantly company.

Vi is remembered and therefore portrayed as a woman in her element. In complete charge of her domain, she is tolerant, understanding and welcoming. Described by her granddaughter as ‘classless’ she had the ability to become whatever her patrons needed her to be, whilst retaining her identity and her authority.

Her beliefs and politics were what we would now describe as ‘liberal’, tolerate of minority groups long before most of society caught up. There is a beautiful story about her lending ‘Lot and Lil’, a homosexual couple who frequented her father’s pub during the war years, her black velvet dresses to wear for parties. Similarly she takes well respected regulars out to the car park and goes ‘coldly berserk’ after they begin whispering loudly and judgementally in corners about a mixed race couple.

Her relationship with alcohol is complex. Quite clearly she worships it, describing the perfect gin as ‘bloody beautiful’ and building her whole livelihood around it’s selling and consumption. But crucially she respects it. She is tolerate of those who drink and get drunk but finds a ‘bad drunk’ distasteful. She would, for example, frown upon those punters if today who drink to excess before a night out, preloading at home before setting off into town. For Vi alcohol is something to be savoured, enjoyed and an experience to be shared, not something to be guzzled and later regretted.

But for all of it’s focus on the formidable Violet this book is more than a memoir. Through her Grandmother’s story and, indeed, her own role within it, Laura Thompson looks at the changing face, role and status of the ‘Pub’ within our society, examining the factors behind it’s ever evolving nature.

Thompson looks back with intelligence and insight into the history of brewing from the Middle Ages and beyond. She charts the role of women, who were once at the forefront of brewing and serving ale, working from home in the original cottage industry. Landladies, in one form or another, were historically common place, important and accepted. It was ‘the determined force of religion’ which sought to moderate, regulate and curtail the sale of alcohol that undermined and practically halted the involvement of women within the industry.

Thompson looks in detail that the many incantations and variations of the pub through the centuries, providing a comprehensive social history that brings us bang up to date with the family, theme and gastro pubs of today.

This is a unique, compelling and entertaining read. Without a doubt it is one woman’s tribute to her Grandmother, cherised and admired, but it is so much more than that. It is also an insightful account of the role of the ‘pub’, ever evolving, throughout British History.

About the Author…

Laura Thompson won the Somerset Maugham award with her first book The Dogs, and wrote two books about horse racing while living in Newmarket. Her biographical study of Nancy Mitford, Life in a Cold Climate (2003) was followed by a major biography of Agatha Christie. A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan was published in 2014 and her 2015 book Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters was recently sold to television. She lives in Richmond.

Laura Thompson.

And there is more…

For more information and reviews of this fascinating book check out the other Fanta bloggers on The Last Landlady tour listed below.

Book Birthday Blitz: The Fourth Victim by John Mead

Today I have my party hat on, already to be part of the #BookBirthdayBlitz for The Fourth Victim by John Mead. This ‘one day only event’ comes ahead of the publication of John’s next police procedural and follow up novel Geraldine, published on 28th September.

Thank you, as always, to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the opportunity to read, review and take part.

Ever start reading a book and immediately you can ‘see’ the story playing out in your head?

That is exactly what happened to me when I started read The Fourth Victim by John Mead.

As the story begins we join Detective Inspector Matthew Merry as he enters his last case. Having seemingly lost heart for active policing Merry is being sidelined into a desk job, his superiors questioning recent lacklustre performances.

Before he leaves he has one last case to solve.

The body of a young woman, Lynsey Hensley has been found in a local park. Nothing has been stolen and it seems the victim was attacked from behind in broad daylight.

Along with Detective Sergeant Julie Lukula, Merry begins chasing up the few leads they have. The case is quickly linked to an earlier attack on a young drug addict and prostitute Jody Grahame, and then a third girl, Madeline Turner is found dead.

Is there a serial killer on the loose? And if so what connects the three girls, apart from the hammer blow to the head that killed them all?

Does the key lie with Jenny Cowan, a young woman who is admitted to hospital after attempting to take her own life. Her prints match those found at one of the murder scenes.

But there is a problem.

Jenny suffers from Dissociative Identify Disorder (DID), meaning as witnesses or even suspects go she is unreliable in the extreme. Her multiple personalities work against each other, indeed the investigating team never know which one will come to the fore.

So when her therapist Dr Alima Hussan offers to guide the police through their interviews it seems like an offer too good to miss.

Or is it? Is the charismatic Alima everything she seems? Or is she about to blow this investigation wide apart?

The thing I loved about this novel was undoubtedly it’s characters. Bottom line is that the key characters are believable and crucially flawed.

Now I love a flawed character, especially in a police procedural. I always feel it adds an edge to the characters and makes them plausible and authentic.

And D.I. Merry is certainly flawed.

It is the human element of Merry’s behaviour and those around him that adds the feeling of jeopardy to this case.

The dialogue throughout is consistently well written. It flows seamlessly, creating situations which are within touching distance of the reader and all cloaked in impeccable research.

This is a novel filled with surprises, twists and turns. Nothing is quite what it seems at first or even second glance, and what you thought you knew at the beginning will be turned on it’s head by the end.

About the author

And there is more…

To read more reviews of The Fourth Victim check out the blogs below. Happy Reading.

Blog Tour Review – The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy is a writer unlike no other.

This strikes me, even as I write it, as a sentence that feels over used and some what stale. But that doesn’t stop it from being true.

There are so many authors out there that I admire but Levy’s work is always immediately identifiable as hers. Her work is consistently insightful, always complex and raw, and always magnificent.

I am thrilled to be part of the blog tour for her third Man Booker long listed novel, The Man Who Saw Everything.

The novel centres on Saul Alder, a young historian and opens in 1988. Saul is knocked over on the famous Abbey Road crossing, and despite a rather confusing encounter with the driver who hits him, seems physically unharmed. Immediately after the accident he visits his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, a talented American art student and fiesty independent women, who has imposed clear rules on their relationship.

This evening is a crossroads in their relationship. Saul is about to embark on a research trip to the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Jennifer is finishing her studies and moving on. Saul proposes marriage, Jennifer ends the relationship. The theme of misremembering, misinterpretation and conflict begins, and we get our first glimpse of the nature of Saul Alder.

For Levy has created a character that is intelligent, beautiful and articulate. Having lost his mother at an early age Saul seems emotionally tied to the past. At odds with his working class father and bully of a brother, refusing to remove his mothers pearls, Saul Alder is self absorbed, often selfish, but certainly not self aware. A man with an incredible eye for detail in the world around him, he is woefully lacking in his understanding of his own character and behaviour.

As his relationship with Jennifer ends Saul travels to the GDP. He is assigned a translator, Walter Muller, with whom he begins a relationship, one which comes to dominate his life despite it’s breivity. He also becomes involved with Walter’s sister Luna, a young woman looking for her key to the west.

The second half of the book takes place in 2016. Saul has again been struck by a car, again on the infamous Abbey Road crossing. This time he is seriously injured and the second half of the book is an account of his time in hospital. A time where the threads of his life come together and Saul begins to face the man he is.

Throughout the novel there runs an overwhelming sense of history; personal history and world history, particulary that of Europe. It is not a linear presentation, rather it is fragmented, appearing in snapshots, interpreted and misrembered by individual characters each adding their own version of events.

Levy continually plays with the concept of time. There is a fractured and fragmented feel to the novel as elements from each part of Saul’s life appear in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Personalities from the past appear in the future and vice versa, creating a running commentary on the complexity of what makes a person and what defines our experiences and choices. There is an inflated sense of deja vu as the echoes of the past affect the future and back again.

Saul feels like a conduit within the novel, a way of drawing together the past, the present and the future. A feeling embodied by Luna, when she says…

But you must.” she said, firmly. “You are history”

Pg 89

Continually the lines of time are blurred. Whilst in the GDP Saul is able to give Luna an accurate prediction about the fall of the Berlin Wall, bringing the future to the present. Equally we feel that the grief he holds, literally around his neck, for the loss of his mother, is what drives Saul to his study of German policital history. Again Levy is playing with and breaking through the barriers of time to create the sense of a novel seeped in history but unconstrained by it.

Throughout the novel there is a sense of haunting. The image of spectres appear again and again, particularly as Saul is hospitalised after his second accident. Levy points out that events in our lives continue to contribute to and define us as we move forwards. Similarly the motif of wolves, dogs and predators stalk the narrative, in the way that his grief for his mother and his guilt surrounding his relationship with Walter stalk Saul’s own life.

Yet Saul is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Taking into account the moving and fractured time frames, his own lack of self awareness and his two accidents, there is a continual sense of story and an author shaping and rediscovering themselves. At times this feels very insular and persoanl to Saul’s story, at other times this feels very much like a wider metaphor for the historial and polictical times we currently find ourselves in.

For this is a novel steeped in the history of Europe. There are continual references to various European countries and influences, woven skillfully into the narrative. The history of Europe and it’ s division and subsequent reunification through the fall of the GDR is central to the novel. It doesn’t feel coindicidental that Saul’s second accident is firmly in the time frame of the EU referendum result. There is a feeling that whatever our future relationship with Europe, we are still bound to it through the past and the present. Nothing is as linear as we would like to believe.

It feels so trite and unimaginative to call this novel complex and orginal. But it truly is. Every review I have read has come up with a different perspective and focus. For it is a novel that lends it’s self to interpretation and discussion. There is so much more to this work than I could ever hope to include in these short paragraphs. It is a work to be read debated and then reread. And I guarantee that much like the narrative structure adopted by Levy your perception will shift and you will find new angles, new motifs and new meanings upon each reading. I have read this book twice in 5 days and each time I have taken something different away from it.

The Man Who Saw Everything is an incredible book. There is no doubt it is a novel for our time; it is a novel for all time. And I am predicting a third Man Booker short listed book for Deborah Levy.

Escape to my happy place : The Northumberland Coast Barter Books!

Everyone needs a ‘happy place’. Somewhere that isn’t necessarily home but is a place where you feel totally comfortable and able to relax. Somewhere that just thinking of about it lowers your stress levels and makes you smile for a minute or too. Somewhere that you have a physical longing to be.

For me, over the last 15 or so years, that place has become the Northumberland Coast. Walking the beaches there is truly the medicine I need to soothe my soul.

Beadnell Beach in the winter sun
Bamburgh Beach

Our favourite family beaches are Beadnell and Bamburgh, enjoyed pretty much whatever the weather.

A few days in this spot is the ultimate battery recharge for me. Give me a week and I am ecstatic, but I will settle for the mad dash across the country just for a day.

And it was one of those ‘mad dash’ trips that found us in Beadnell last weekend. Scorching hot and filled with people seeking the same joy as ourselves, it was still an absolute pleasure to be there.

A stroll on the beach, lobster and chips from the seafood shack @baitatbeadnell and then a meal in the always welcoming Craster Arms, all set me up nicely for one of the highlights of my trip…

Barter Books!!

Entrance to Barter Books, Alnwick

Barter Books is possibly the most amazing second hand book shop I have ever visited in my life. And I have been in a few! Ask my family!

Housed in the listed Victorian railway station in Alnwick the only word for it is, well huge!! It houses over 350,000 secondhand books, both fiction and non fiction. The books are all laid out by catergory, which range from subjects as diverse at Horror to Mountaineering and back again. There is truly something to meet suit all tastes.

The shop also specialises in Antiquarian and rare books. A good proportion of any visit is usually spent gazing longingly into the locked cabinets that run the length of the old station walls. On this occasion I tore myself sensibly, if somewhat reluctantly away from a signed copy of Vera Brittain’s Testament Of Friendship…

The children’s section of the bookshop is a treasure trove. So many of our family books have been purchased here over the years. It is a space that welcomes children of all ages with no hint of stuffiness. From the huge book lorry which houses a comprehensive selection of picture books, to the wheely bugs on the floor…

…and not forgetting the model train that runs around the bookshelves, all designed to help foster a love of books from an early age.

But what if your companions are not quite a Bookish as you? Because let’s be honest it is quite easy to spend literally hours in this divine place without coming up for air.

Fear not, all tastes are catered for!

For the reluctant teenager in your life the shop has WiFi access!! And a bank of computers which means they can search for any book they might want without having to leave their seat. I have to confess to have never used this service because I belong to that strange breed who would rather rummage amongst the book stacks seeking my treasure in reality rather than virtually. But it an amazing resources.

And let’s talk food! Because the shop houses the AMAZING Station Buffet, serving hot and cold food. Like the book shop it’s self it is open 9am – 7pm every day.

Station Buffet

In the winter the favourite spot for my family to stop, flop and well, wait (!) is by the fire in the front of the shop. Cosy arm chairs, coffee, tea and even dog biscuits for the furry friends so welcome here. What is not to love?

Barter Books is a special place. Beginning as just an idea in the front room of her husband’s manufacturing plant Mary Manley has created a unique book experience, catering to all tastes and needs. I challenge anyone not to find something here that interests them. From graphic novels to War and Peace the breadth and depth of books is breathtaking.

And if the books are breathtaking the same can certainly be said for the interior of the shop. Commissioned between 1999 and 2006 are The Three Murals. The Famous Writers mural took two years to complete and contains 30 portraits of famous writers.

The Famous Writers Mural.

The Railway Mural contains the names of nearly 450 railway staff who worked at Alnwick station up it’s closure in 1968. The final mural The Tennyson Installation illustrates the opening lines of Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar.

So what was my haul last weekend?? Well, by my standards it was quite a small selection but no less pleasing for that. An unread Tracy Chevailer, my first every Jess Kidd and Margaret Drabble and a completely new author, with a book set amongst the Cumbrian fells.

This post is a whistle stop tour of a fabulous shop, where I have only skimmed the surface of what it can offer. I honestly cannot recommend Barter Books highly enough. Set in such a stunning county, this is the perfect place to lose yourself in meeting old book friends and making new ones. If you are ever in Alnwick, do yourself a favour and pop in.

Rachel x

You can find Barter Books @ Alnwick Station, Northumberland, NE66 2NP. +44(0)1665 604888.