The days are short, the nights are dark and the temperature is freezing. Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in an indefinite lockdown that shows no discernible signs of coming to an end. With most other pursuits thus denied to us, now is the perfect time to immerse yourself in a good book. But sometimes, the improving but ‘difficult’ literary novel or the tense crime thriller isn’t entirely what you want. Instead, here are seven recommendations for a purely entertaining read.
Most, if not quite all, are laugh-out-loud funny, but there are quieter and sadder moments along the way, too, just like in life. By the end of these tomes, it’s a rare reader who won’t feel better for having immersed themselves in a world that, whether it’s anthropomorphic animals frolicking by the Thames, a fearful junior history lecturer making a hash of his job or the adventures of a mad aristocratic family, seems a much nicer one to spend some time in than the one that we’re all inhabiting now. Time for some feel-good escapism:
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
One reads Kenneth Grahame’s enduring children’s masterpiece for the character of Mr Toad. Which is not to say that the book’s bucolic evocation of time spent ‘messing around in boats’, where it seems forever summer and where a picnic is always conveniently to hand isn’t a wonderfully colourful way to enjoy oneself, but it is Toad that one keeps coming back for. Undeniably one of the greatest characters in literature, the boastful, conceited and whimsical – yet also witty and dangerously charismatic – Mr Toad comes on like a cross between Falstaff and a Wildean dandy, spouting aphorisms and plotting ever-more-absurd schemes as his fellow animals despair of his hi-jinks. And his songs, naturally, remain peerless.
Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
‘Jim felt bad’. With those words, and plenty more as well, Kingsley Amis’s first novel offers the most succinct and evocative literary description of the hangover. It is endured by the young academic Jim Dixon after a misspent night, and the chaos that he causes will echo throughout the rest of the book. Yet for all of its set-piece farce and Amis’s pitch-perfect description of the hopeless fate faced by a man intelligent enough to realise the scrapes he gets into, but too diffident to do much about it, the real appeal of Lucky Jim is the way in which the everyman protagonist takes on the snobbish, pretentious forces of post-war convention, and, despite his best efforts, comes out on top. At a time when we all need heroes, perhaps Jim Dixon is the Everyman who we can truly rely on.
The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford
Debate rages as to whether Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate or Pursuit of Love is the funnier and better book. When Emily Mortimer’s new adaptation of the latter appears on TV soon, starring Lily James and Dominic West, perhaps we shall have another chance to argue that it is Mitford’s masterpiece. Its appeal lies less in the storyline and more in its pitch-perfect characterisation, largely based on Mitford’s friends and family. Everyone will have their own favourite character and mine is Uncle Matthew, an eccentric of terrifyingly hilarious proportions (and based on Mitford’s own father), who stores an ‘entrenching tool’, with which he killed Germans in the First World War, in his hall and has a drawer in a study where he puts the names of nemeses real and imagined. But there are many more delights here, in Mitford’s beautifully evoked and endlessly entertaining world.
Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse
Any list like this simply has to have a novel by the great comic writer PG Wodehouse. Of the dozens that could be included, I think that Right Ho, Jeeves makes the cut simply because of Wodehouse’s greatest-ever comic set-piece, when Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle is called upon to present the prizes at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School. Unfortunately, Gussie – a lifelong teetotaller and newt-fancier – has become extremely drunk. Over the next pages, Wodehouse depicts a farcical situation with marvellous economy and wit, where every single line and sentence brings some new and unexpected joy, and Bertie’s narration becomes increasingly panicked. It must be read, and savoured, with great attention, but sometimes it’s hard to concentrate when the tears of laughter are rolling down your face.
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
The novels of Patrick Hamilton are not traditionally rib-tickling reads. Although drenched in dark humour, their evocation of pre and post-war Britain, a dingy time of blackouts, frowsy pubs and betrayal, is a mordant one. Yet The Slaves of Solitude is the closest that Hamilton ever came to writing an upbeat novel, and it remains his most purely enjoyable book.
Set mainly in the fictional town of ‘Thames Lockdon’, a substitute for Henley-on-Thames, it tells the story of an increasingly awful power struggle at an unexceptional boarding house, where the sympathetic protagonist Miss Roach finds herself dealing with the unprecedentedly vile and boring Mr Thwaites, described by Hamilton as ‘the President in Hell’. Usually, Hamilton’s characters find themselves stuck in purgatory, or worse, forever, but it is not spoiling The Slaves of Solitude to reveal that, for once, the tables are turned, in spectacularly cathartic and uplifting fashion.
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
Fans of Evelyn Waugh’s unique, uproarious worldview – and I would definitely count myself as one – might find no purer expression of his talent than in his first novel, Decline and Fall, written and published while he was still in his twenties. Following the adventures of the hapless young Paul Pennyfeather, from university to teaching to white slavery to prison, and beyond, it is a novel without a shred of sentiment, but all the funnier for it. As with many novels on this list, it features an indelible cast of supporting characters, from the long-suffering headmaster Dr Fagan to the all-knowing butler Philbrick, but the greatest of them all is the deeply unsavoury schoolmaster Captain Grimes, forever finding himself ‘in the soup’ for some misdemeanour or other, and relishing the amoral freedom that ‘not being a gentleman’ gives him.
I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
Forget dalmatians - Dodie Smith’s undoubted masterpiece is her brilliant debut novel, following the adventures of the eccentric and impoverished family the Mortmains. Beginning with one of the great introductions to its central character, Cassandra – ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea cosy’ – it treads vaguely similar territory to Nancy Mitford. However, while Mitford’s books have an autobiographical element, Smith’s novel is an arresting, very funny and finally enormously moving testament to breaking free of your surroundings and embracing the future. It is only fitting that Cassandra wants to be a writer, and this wonderful book is a testament to fulfilling that dream.