5 books, Book lists

5 books about holidays from hell

5-books-200pixWe all love going on holiday, but what happens when things don’t go according to plan? In this selection of five novels — all reviewed on this site — characters find themselves caught up in trips that quickly descend into vacations from hell.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

‘A Woman of my Age’ by Nina BawdenA woman of my age (1967)

Middle-aged Elizabeth Jourdelay is feeling bereft after her children leave home. When she goes on holiday to Morocco with her husband Richard, she finds herself trapped with other English travellers — one of whom she suspects her husband may have had an affair with. As the couple, and their new-found “friends”, travel from Fez to the barren uplands beyond the Atlas mountains, the reader soon begins to realise that Elizabeth has made far too many compromises in order that her marriage can work, and now, in a foreign country, the cracks in their relationship can no longer be smoothed over. The tension, some of it tragi-comical, builds and builds until it comes to a devastating head…

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

When Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, set off on a holiday to Puerto Rico by cruise ship little do they know how nightmarish their trip will become. It all begins with one act of simple kindness — Day loans a Canadian woman $10, whom they then struggle to shake off. Before long things go from bad to worse when Dr Slade falls ill and Day has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans, which transforms the couple’s exotic holiday into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

Losing-Gemma‘Losing Gemma’ by Katy Gardner (2002)

This a fast-paced psychological thriller about two English 20-something backpackers who journey to India on an “adventure of a lifetime” yet only one comes back alive — a fact that is made quite apparent at the start. The two female travellers, who have known each other since childhood but are polar opposites, are plunged into a strange land where strange things begin to happen to them. This puts untold stress on their friendship, which begins to quickly unravel. An intriguing undercurrent of menace builds to a frightening climax in which only one woman will survive…

Summer House with Swimming Pool‘Summer house with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch (2014)

This strange and compelling tale is a dark analysis of modern morals and the consequences of acting on our most wanton desires. It revolves around a doctor and his family who are invited to spend their summer in a holiday house with a famous actor and his friends. They all pass their days in the sun, swimming and drinking. It all seems rather carefree, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between all the adult couples and there’s even a fledgling romance between the actor’s son and the doctor’s teenage daughter. But eventually that tension spills over into something dark and dangerous, the outfall of which has long-lasting repercussions. The message seems to be, choose who you go on holiday with very, very carefully…

Goat-mountain‘Goat Mountain’ by David Vann (2013)

This story covers one family’s annual hunting trip in the wilds of Northern California that goes drastically wrong. It is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, eager to become a “man” by shooting his first buck. But within moments of arriving at their destination — the family’s remote 640-acre property — events take an unexpected and dramatic turn. This is a deeply disturbing and violent book that deals with important subjects, not least at what point should a child take responsibility for his actions. It ruminates on the sanctity of life, the sins of the father, the rules (or ethics) of hunting, human guilt and remorse, crime and punishment. It should appeal to those who like dark suspenseful tales about moral culpability.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another story that is based on a holiday from hell?

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Nina Bawden, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Birds on the Trees’ by Nina Bawden


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 190 pages; 1972.

Recently the organisers of the Man Booker Prize announced a new one-off award: the Lost Man Booker Prize. This is designed to honour books, published in 1970, which missed out on the opportunity to win the Booker Prize.

Nina Bawden‘s The Birds on the Trees is one of 22 titles which have has been long-listed (a shortlist will be revealed in March), so what better reason to extract it from the tottering TBR pile for a quick weekend read.

It’s probably best described as an English middle-class kitchen-sink drama. The cover of my first edition Penguin paperback (see above) makes it sound like a sordid story about a teenager on drugs — “This is Toby: withdrawn, difficult, intelligent, and a drug addict. His family are baffled, defeated…” — but it’s really about parental expectations and what happens when your children do not live up to them.

Troubled child

Intriguingly, the book opens with a prologue that introduces us to Toby as a young child. He has a penchant for wandering away from home and visiting the neighbours, usually turning up at Sunday morning breakfasts with “dark famine eyes”, declaring that Mummy has given him nothing to eat. It becomes even more shocking when he appears on the doorstep at 10pm one Christmas Eve and tells them that Mummy and Daddy have gone away for Christmas and left him behind, alone. This serves to plant a seed of doubt in the reader’s mind: is Toby a liar or are his parents negligent in their care?

When we get to chapter one, Toby is now 18 years old. He has a younger sister, Lucy, who is 12, and a brother, Greg, who’s about 7. His mother, Maggie, is a successful novelist and his father, Charlie, an editor. The family is in turmoil because Toby has been expelled from his rather expensive private school for smoking pot. But his Aunt Phoebe seems to be the only one treating it with any sense of perspective.

“It’s a terrible disappointment for you and for them [your parents]. But what’s done is done. […] I hope you will treat this, not as a disaster, but a challenge! When something like this happens, it is often the moment to change direction! Lots of great men have had setbacks, worse than being expelled from school! But they haven’t sat down under them, nor retreated into self-pity. Not stagnated, but gone on to climb the heights. Failure was often just what they needed to set them on the path of success. A timely spur! Grasp the nettle, Toby, grasp the nettle.”

Sadly, Toby does not use the experience to “change direction”, because his parents already have his life mapped out for him: he will cram for his exams at home and then concentrate on the Oxford entrance in the autumn. But Toby, predictably, doesn’t want to go to Oxford — he wants to be “driving a minibus, taking kids to school” — and ends up running away to London, where he stays with a family friend, 21-year-old Hugh, in a basement flat.

Obviously there’s a lot of gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands and parents blaming themselves for what they see as their son’s downfall. Even Toby’s grandmother gets in on the act, berating her daughter when she says “we must have failed him terribly”.

“My dear girl, what are you talking about? The things that boy has had from you! Expensive schools, books, holidays — everything he could possibly want he’s been given. Too much, I sometimes thought, I don’t mind telling you now!”

A product of its time

When Toby shows signs of depression he’s carted off to a mental hospital for a nice little bit of Electric Shock Treatment. To modern minds this seems over-the-top outrageous given that Toby merely smoked a bit of pot and then “lost his way” a little, but The Birds in the Trees is a product of its time. These days the son would be travelling to Africa or backpacking to Australia on his gap year and all this overwrought drama would be treated as nothing more than a rite of passage. But here, in 1970, the generation gap is so wide as to be unbridgeable, and the dangers of drugs — pot, LSD, heroin — are around every corner.

What I liked about this novel, apart from its easy-to-read quality, is the ways in which Bawden explores the drama from every family member’s point of view, so what you get is a rich, complicated tapestry of petty jealousies, sibling rivalry, love, loyalty, empathy and fear. She’s not afraid to show everyone’s faults and foibles, so that even if you think that Maggie and Charlie are too over-protective, too prone to mollycoddle their son, you can at least understand their point of view.

Family life comes in shades of grey, and Bawden paints it faithfully and realistically. Is this enough to win the Lost Man Booker? I’m not sure. While The Birds on the Trees is a wonderful “blast from the past” I think the hysterical nature of parental obsession detailed within it almost comes across as too ludicrous to be true. But it’s definitely a book worth reading, because there’s plenty to mull over, and the characterisation, story-telling and structure of the novel are superb.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2009

Books-of-the-yearAs we get ready to toast the turn of the decade, it’s time for me to name the best novels I read in 2009. All of them garnered five-stars when I reviewed them over the course of the year.

My top 10 fiction reads are as follows (in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (first published in 1988)
To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it’s almost impossible to find fault with it — on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination.

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden (1967)
A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s ‘rules’ and constraints.

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldly wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle. Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes (1966)
Daniel Key’s Flowers for Algernon is a very special science fiction novel that reveals much about the human condition and the ways in which we relate to others. It touches on many issues including the way we treat the mentally handicapped, the ethics of scientific experimentation on animals (and humans), our desire to be ‘normal’, the differences between IQ and EQ, and the ways in which our childhood experiences impact on our adult lives.

‘The Merry-Go-Round-in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)
Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell (1949)
The thing that struck me most was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book […] Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK.

‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman (2009)
Once & Then is a powerful story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds. And while it tackles one of the darkest times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it sensitively without losing any of the important detail. There’s plenty of death here, and
cruelty, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. ‘This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable,’ he writes in his afterward. I think he’s achieved it.

‘Pretty Monsters’ by Kelly Link (2009)
There are nine stories here, some of which have been published elsewhere in the past, and each one presents an intoxicating, hugely original world […] I’ve never read such a wacky collection of stories that gripped me, held me in their sway and slightly altered my perception of the universe when I came to each stunning conclusion. Where has Kelly Link been hiding all my life? She’s bloody brilliant.

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)
The book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving.

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey (2009)
Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel.”

What books did you most enjoy this year?

Africa, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Morocco, Nina Bawden, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden


Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 160 pages; 1992.

Until recently I had Nina Bawden pegged as a children’s author. Then, while browsing BookMooch a week or so ago, I discovered she had an extensive back catalogue of adult fiction that I did not know about. I promptly acquired a rather battered copy of A Woman of My Age (Virago Modern Classic Number 366) and set about reading it.

First published in 1967, this short novel reminded me of Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark  in that it tells the story of one woman’s emotional journey — figuratively and physically — as she struggles to come to terms with growing older and finding her rightful place in the world.

Unhappy woman

From the outset it is clear that our narrator is not content:

I find this so difficult. When I look in the mirror — not to see if the grey roots are beginning to show before the next tinting, but in the same way I used to look at myself when I was seventeen, at what, whom and why — I remain, as I did then, cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my situation: I am Elizabeth Jourdelay, married to Richard, the mother of his two sons. I am, I am middle-aged. This is an embarrassment that has come upon me suddenly, taking me by surprise so that I don’t really believe it. Looking in the mirror I see the wrinkles, but perhaps tomorrow they will be gone and my skin will be smooth again. Though wrinkles are not important. The important thing is that I am in the middle of my life and I feel as I did when I was adolescent, that I do not know where to go from here.

Now, on holiday in Morocco with Richard, Elizabeth longs for the desert because her life was “crowded, cluttered up”. But the journey is far from the calm, peaceful one for which she longs.

Alongside the heat, there are other English travellers with whom she must contend: the delightfully eccentric and elderly Mr and Mrs Hobbs, and the slightly vain, thrice-married Flora and her much younger lover, Adam.

While Elizabeth enjoys the Hobbs’ company, because they remind her of the parents she never had, she finds Flora irritating. Indeed, Flora had gone to Oxford with Richard, and there are suggestions that the pair may have been lovers in the distant past and that their accidental meeting in Fez may have been pre-arranged.

Niggling suspicions

These niggling suspicions eat away at Elizabeth, who finds herself analysing her own marriage with a man she barely knew when she married him, aged 20, some 18 years ago.

Her somewhat melancholy recollections of their life together are seamlessly interspersed with what is happening in the present time, as the couple travels from Fez to the barren uplands beyond the Atlas mountains.

The reader soon begins to realise that Elizabeth has made far too many compromises so that the marriage can work, and now, in a foreign country, the cracks in their relationship can no longer be smoothed over. The tension, some of it tragi-comical, builds and builds until it comes to a devastating head…

A life of one’s own

A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s “rules” and constraints.

Raised by two spinster aunts, one of whom brought her up “to give too much importance to careers and causes and things of the mind”, Elizabeth finds marriage and motherhood constricting.

A highly political creature — “I was very unsure of myself except in matters of political opinion” — she longs to become a local councillor but Richard thought it a “dirty game and he could not understand how I could endure it”.

Later, when she raises the subject of getting a job, the response from her mother-in-law is crushing:

She said, first, ‘Do you really want one, dear? Richard and I thought you had settled so nicely’ — as if I was some sort of jelly — and then, ‘Well, if you really want to, I suppose it would be nice for you to earn some pin money.’

Unfortunately, it does not pan out as planned.

Perhaps it was stupid of me, but I had expected so much, if in a rather a vague way, that the reality was a bitter shock: I was unqualified, I had no degree, I wasn’t even trained as a secretary. It soon became clear that nothing which came up to my expectations was open to me. When I realised this, the walls seemed to close in. I became a gloomily devoted mother.

Different standards

There’s something very sad about Elizabeth reconciling her expectations with keeping her family happy because it’s clear that her husband has not had to do the same thing. Of course, we only hear Elizabeth’s side of the story, but as the narrative progresses you begin to understand that Richard is not the saintly schoolteacher husband he purports to be.

And while Bawden deftly captures all the tensions and betrayals and compromises that married people make, she also does a nice line in setting the mood. Her descriptions of Morocco are particularly vivid.

The terrace of the casbah fell away down the hill, dovetailed into one another like the streets and courts of a medieval city, all enclosed in a wall of the same red earth. At one end there was a little tower where cranes were nesting. Beyond the wall was the palm-grove, a chess-board of different coloured grasses, and beyond the oasis, the flat, ochre colour of the desert. The air quivered, not just far in a heat haze, but close by me on the parapet, in a kind of vibrating brightness that hurt my eyes.

In fact, setting the book in Morocco is a clever touch, because it allows Elizabeth to compare the subjugation of women in North African societies with her own situation. Indeed, when Flora points out that “their men shut them up at home; even if you visit the house, the women don’t appear socially. Just to serve the food” the point seemingly goes over Elizabeth’s head, but it did not go over mine.

Having read my first Nina Bawden adult novel I’m keen to read the others — there’s certainly plenty to keep me occupied as you can see by this and this.

Next on the rank is The Birds in the Trees or maybe I will try Afternoon of a Good Women, two books I mooched even before I’d come to the end of this one. If they are half as good as A Woman of My Age I am sure to be in for a treat.