Book review: “The Bottle Factory Outing” by Beryl Bainbridge

This was my January pick for my 2019 Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme for this month being a humorous novel. I hadn’t read any Bainbridge before and had read that this was considered a comic masterpiece and was in fact shortlisted the Booker Prize in 1974 when it was first published (Bainbridge had no less than four novels shortlisted). This book also won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

So, the book has a pedigree and I had high expectations. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. Perhaps it’s partly timing; I posted a review last week of The Overstory, a book which I found breathtakingly good, and which I completed just before starting this one and I fear that it suffered somewhat in comparison. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for humour after that! I seem to remember having similar feelings about the books I read immediately after completing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a couple of years ago. There are some books which just need a little more time to sit with you before you launch into something else.

The Bottle Factory Outing imgIn summary, this book is set in the late ‘60s, early 70s and is about Freda and Brenda, two young women who work together in a London factory where Italian wine is bottled. They also live together in a pokey bedsit, and share a double bed at nights. Freda is blonde, buxom and outgoing, sexually frustrated and of a romantic inclination. She has the hots for Vittorio, the nephew of the factory’s Italian owner, and fantasises about being seduced by him, contriving situations to enable this. Brenda is a redhead, but mousey in personality, timid and sexually repressed. She has left her drunken husband Stanley in the Yorkshire farmhouse which they shared with his domineering mother. Freda and Brenda met after Brenda had a tearful outburst in a butcher’s shop. Freda took her in and got her a job at the factory. Freda can be kind but also cruel and the book is as much about the complex nature of relationships between women as anything else.

Almost all the other factory workers are Italian, expect Patrick, an Irishman who seems to be quite protective towards Brenda. The first quarter or so of the book is spent setting the scene before the ‘outing’ takes place. The outing, which was supposed to be by coach to a stately home, was Freda’s idea and was simply one of her plots to try and get Vittorio to declare his passion for her. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when the expected coach does not arrive and some workers have to go home while others pile into cars, and the outing turns into farce. It is a cold and bleak October day, so Freda’s fantasy of a sunlit picnic and strolling through romantic gardens with her hoped-for lover were never going to be realised. The other side-plot is that Brenda is being relentlessly pursued by the (older and married) Rossi, manager of the factory. At work he is always trying to get her into compromising situations.

The outing occupies most of the rest of the book. Inevitably, not all goes to plan and there is a dramatic and unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil by sharing with you. There is definitely humour, but it is very dark. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio broadcast of the story (abridged of course) in mid-January, where the wonderful Maxine Peake and Diane Morgan took the parts of Freda and Brenda, respectively, and Sue Johnstone (masterful) narrates. They drew out both the humour and the tenderness very effectively. In fact I enjoyed the broadcast slightly more than the book! I think this was because the ironic interpretation came across more strongly (the process of abridging perhaps?) and that felt more satisfying for a 21st century reading. Clearly we still have quite a way to go when it comes to gender equality, but you forget how bad things were only 40-50 years ago. In the context of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is more difficult to find funny. Perhaps I am being far too earnest!

I enjoyed the book, but must confess that reading it did at times make me a bit uncomfortable. Which is a shame because I think it is a far more complex novel than a first (post-Overstory) reading allows. I think I need to read it again!

Hmm, what do you think?

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Kids book review: “Hamish and the Baby Boom” by Danny Wallace

Some kids don’t find it easy to read or don’t find books appealing. I find the 9-12 age group can be a real make or break time when it comes to books; parents often stop reading to their children around the age of eight or nine, reading can become a chore, associated with school and homework and the need to reach certain literacy targets, and it’s often when kids get mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles, all of which compete for time and attention. Not only that, but some kids find it difficult to concentrate for longer periods and so the more substantial books that are often suitable subject matter for this age group may be just too boring for them.

Hamish and the baby boom imgI am a firm believer that all reading material is good, just keep them at it, and adults should not judge if their kids want to read comics and picture books when they might think they ‘should’ be reading something more mature. If this sounds like a child you know, I’ve found a great little series they might find interesting. Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace and illustrated by Jamie Littler is the fourth book in a series. Hamish Ellerby is the central character, a 12 year-old boy and leader of the Pause Defence Force in the town of Starkley. Hamish’s father is some sort of secret agent, ever engaged in defending earth against the evil Scarmash. Hamish has inherited some of his father’s abilities and leads his small group of friends in the PDF against strange and hostile happenings in the town of Starkley.

In this book, Hamish and the PDF uncover a secret plot by Scarmash to create an army of superbabies, fuelled by ‘Formula One’, a powerful food that makes them grow at an extraordinary rate, and develop remarkable strength and skills to overpower their parents and carers. That’s about the sum of the plot! So, you see it’s not complex stuff.

It’s silly, it’s gross (the opening scene is set in the nursery of a hospital where all the babies start weeing simultaneously, traumatising the nurse on duty) and it’s action-packed. The characters in the PDF are diverse, so a wide range of readers should be able to identify with them, and they are at once ‘like us’ but also in a pure fantasy world. There are illustrations on nearly every page so although it’s quite a long book (over 300 pages, so acceptably thick-looking in the playground) it’s a quick and easy read with short chapters. There is a website to accompany the series (worldofhamish.com) so plenty of opportunity for extension activity and to get them hooked on other books in the series.

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Reading this book reminded me of both the Captain Underpants books (which my son and I loved) but also of Tin Tin (although the plots there are more complex I think). Both of those are quite masculine, though, whereas I think Hamish has a wider appeal.

Recommended for 9-11 year olds, especially reluctant readers.

Do you find it a challenge to keep your kids reading?

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Book Review: “The Life and Loves of a He-Devil” by Graham Norton

I love my little book club – it’s small and very exclusive and, besides books, we specialise in popcorn, gin and tonic and extra-curricular trips. All in the name of literature, of course!

We have been meeting every month for a couple of years now and have read a wide range of books: fiction, non-fiction, YA, thrillers, classics, to name but a few of our chosen genres. Some books we have loved, some we have loved less. Some generate an enormous amount of discussion, others less.

The Life and Loves of a He Devil imgWe decided for our March meeting we’d read Graham Norton’s 2014 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil. We wanted to read an autobiography and felt that among the many “celebrity” memoirs out there, Graham’s might have more to offer than most. We all like him as a broadcaster and personality and thought it might be fun. We were not wrong! But when we came to meet and discuss it, we had very little to say. We’d exchanged a number of messages on our WhatsApp group in the preceding weeks, with many laughter emojis, asking each other if we’d come across the dog and condom anecdote yet, or the Dolly Parton story. Some sections of this book, which I read most of whilst on a train journey to London, were laugh-out-loud, or rather “try to suppress a laugh because I’m in public”, moments. It’s a romp and Graham writes the way he speaks, with wit, authenticity and complete honesty. His writing style is similar in his novel Holding, which I reviewed here last year, and really enjoyed. (His second novel, entitled A Keeper, is due out in the Autumn.)

It’s charming and funny, and there is such a lot of name-dropping that it’s a bit of escapism too. Reading it is a reminder of just how successful, Graham is; I lost count of the number of homes he owns and the list of people he calls friends is something to behold. I think it’s because he manages to make you feel that he is a regular guy, just like the rest of us, and just as in awe of all the celebs and their glitter. He also manages to convey a kind of naivety and innocence that make you feel he is very ordinary. He is not of course; he’s supremely talented and clearly unusually astute to have achieved what he has. That does not come from luck alone. Concealing all of that beneath a veneer of self-deprecation is a talent in itself and I admire him enormously.

Back to my book club, we had only one criticism, and that is that the opening chapter (the book is divided into chapters, each of which is about one of his ‘loves’), about the joys of being a dog-owner, was, we felt, by far the funniest, so everything that followed was not inferior exactly, but did not quite meet the same high bar.

Not much to say then, except that it’s hugely funny, and if you like Graham Norton, you’ll love this book!

Have you read this or any of Graham Norton’s other books?

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