Delightful, Cheerful Books

“A hangover is the wrath of grapes.” — Dorothy Parker

Hi my lovelies,

I hope you’re safe, I hope you’re staying indoors, and I hope you and your loved ones are well and healthy.

In my childhood, I had a daily ritual after coming home from school: curling up on the living room sofa to read a book as the sun made its way down. It used to feel like a guilty pleasure in the intervening years but not any more. Life’s too short to not do it.

Here are some favourite books to (re)discover. As with my cheer-me-up films, these are meant to go down easy. I know some people like to get lost in dark twisted tomes but this isn’t that list. These are strictly fun, cheering, maybe silly at times, but delightfully so. They’re a terrific way to get absorbed. Enjoy!

Contemporary + fun
This edition: Simon & Schuster, 2014

The Rosie Project (2013) by Graeme Simsion.

A hilarious novel about an Australian genetics professor who sets out to find a suitable partner. The sequel, The Rosie Effect, is fun too, though (as the bar was set very high) not quite as spectacular.

Claudia had introduced me to one of her many friends. Elizabeth was a highly intelligent computer scientist, with a vision problem that had been corrected with glasses. I mention the glasses because Claudia showed me a photograph, and asked me if I was okay with them. An incredible question! From a psychologist! In evaluating Elizabeth’s suitability as a potential partner – someone to provide intellectual stimulation, to share activities with, perhaps even to breed with – Claudia’s first concern was my reaction to her choice of glasses frames, which was probably not even her own but the result of advice from an optometrist. This is the world I have to live in. Then Claudia told me, as though it was a problem: “She has very firm ideas.”
“Are they evidence-based?”
“I guess so,” Claudia said.
Perfect. She could have been describing me.
More contemporary + fun
  • Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (2013) by Nina Stibbe. This is a collection of letters Nina wrote to her sister while working as a 20-year-old nanny in London (looking after Stephen Frears’ children). Totally adorable and she’s so funny.
  • The Red Notebook (2014) by Antoine Laurain. This French novel is a quick read and light as soufflé. It’s a rom com so its adaptation is sure to be coming to a theatre near you.
  • The Last Letter From Your Lover (2008) by Jojo Moyes. This is a super fun and gripping romance. Interspersed with real-life notes from people leaving their lovers too, which is a hilarious bonus.
  • Year of Yes (2015) by Shonda Rhimes. I have rarely been so impressed and charmed by a memoir. Rhimes (creator and writer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, among others) is also totally funny.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012) by Maria Semple. I was dazzled by this exciting and extraordinary novel that was so much fun to read.
  • Hector and the Search for Happiness (2002) by François Lelord. Whimsical and charming story.
  • Blue Heaven (1988) by Joe Keenan. I was lent this decades ago and remember it being a hoot. A gay man and an uptight woman who hate each other hash a plan to get married in order to scheme money out of their respective wealthy families. Keenan was a writer of the sitcom Frasier (which I loved for never having a dumb character – the laziest way to add cheap humour to a show).
  • Also: anything by Nora Ephron, especially her one novel, Heartburn (1983; one of my all-time favourites for its razor-sharp observations and wit), and any collection of her essays, especially I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006).

Living Abroad

If you’re missing the idea of living in another culture as our borders remain shut for the foreseeable future, here’s one way of living vicariously.

This edition: Penguin, 2004

My Family and Other Animals (1956) by Gerard Durrell.

First read in school, I’ve revisited it over the decades when I want to cheer myself up. Durrell writes of the time his eccentric English family tired of the poor weather in England and moved to Corfu in the 1930s. Though written for laughs, each character is affectionately drawn and, by the book’s end, you already miss them madly. So it’s a good thing there are two more installments in the memoir series.

“They seem a helpful crowd,” Larry went on. “The manager himself shifted my bed nearer the window.”
“He wasn’t very helpful when I asked for paper,” said Leslie.
“Paper?” asked Mother. “What did you want paper for?”
“For the lavatory… there wasn’t any in there,” explained Leslie.
“Shhh! Not at the table,” whispered Mother.
“You obviously don’t look,” said Margo in a clear and penetrating voice; “they’ve got a little box full by the pan.”
“Margo, dear!” exclaimed Mother, horrified.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t you see the little box?”
Larry gave a snort of laughter. “Owing to the somewhat eccentric plumbing system of the town,” he explained to Margo kindly, “that little box is provided for the… er… debris, as it were, when you have finished communing with nature.”
Margo’s face turned scarlet with a mixture of embarrassment and disgust. “You mean… you mean… that was… My God! I might have caught some foul disease,” she wailed, and, bursting into tears, fled from the dining-room.
More living abroad

As with My Family and Other Animals, many of these caused copycats to follow in their footsteps, ruining the very idyll they went to chase… so reading about it is definitely a less destructive way of living that life.

  • A Year in Provence (1989) by Peter Mayle. Giving up a stressy urban life for a rustic one abroad, eccentric characters and slowing down life – this book kicked off a major trend.
  • Eat Pray Love (2006) by Elizabeth Gilbert. Unable to cope with her messy divorce, Gilbert takes off to eat, pray and love in Italy, India and Indonesia. This remains of my favourite reads, resonating like crazy when I first read it. It’s also thoroughly charming in its earnestness and candour.
  • My Life in France (2006) by Julia Child. Filled with joie de vivre, this is a heartfelt memoir where Child describes her finding her calling as a chef in 1950s Paris. Her commitment to what she loved – which included her husband, Paul – is in every, delightful line.
  • A Moveable Feast (1964) by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was a key player in the “poor, happy” circle of artists and writers in 1920s Paris. He treads lightly over his own excessive drinking, extramarital affairs, and brutish behaviour (recorded elsewhere) but this remains an illuminating record, especially the chapters on F Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) by David Sedaris. A collection of essays by my favourite writer. The second half of the book takes place in Normandy, where he and his boyfriend Hugh move to, and where Sedaris attempts to learn the language.

Cosy + fun

As I am with classic Hollywood cinema, these “cosy reads” are my go-to books.

This edition: Penguin, 1998

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons.

I came to this first through its 1995 film adaptation and only read the book more recently. It’s a hilarious comic novel, cleverly pitched and nicely plotted. While I’m not wild about the way some speech is written in dialect, it’s otherwise a delight.

“If you ask me,” continued Flora, “I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her, and so do I. You see, Mary” – and here Flora began to grow earnest and to wave one finger about – “unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes.”
More cosy + fun

I’ve written about these in more detail in these dedicated posts: Books: Charming Novels and Some Excellent Women, but here’s a run down. Personally, stories set in and around WWII are feeling relevant and instructive right now.

  • I Capture The Castle (1948) by Dodie Smith. A coming-of-age story about an eccentric English family who live in a castle. One of the most darling books I ever read.
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (1938) by Winifred Watson. A mousy middle-aged governess gets sent to the wrong address and ends up having the adventure of her life. Adore! Rediscovered and reissued by Persephone Books.
  • In Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949) by Nancy Mitford. About upperclass English girls falling in love, but as with all of Mitford’s work, these are tart, not sweet. The second is a personal favourite.
  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) by Elizabeth Taylor. An elderly woman who feels discarded by everyone becomes friends with a young writer.
  • Miss Buncle’s Book (1934),  Miss Buncle Married (1936), and The Two Mrs Abbotts (1943) by DE Stevenson. Miss Buncle writes a thinly-veiled novel under a pen name about her local community in order to make some quick money, only for the town to get into an uproar when it gets published. All three in the series are republished by gorgeous Persphone Books, and all feel fast, funny and fresh.
  • The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) by EM Delafield. There’s an omnibus but the first book is the one to read. Delafield’s daughter, RM Dashwood wrote a sort-of sequel in Provincial Daughter (1961).
  • High Rising (1933) by Angela Thirkell. Famed “lady novelist” (as she is known) plays matchmaker in the country. A fun read with lots of clever lines.
  • Little Women (1868) by Louisa M Alcott. A justified classic that never seems to age. I’m madly in love with Greta Gerwig’s recent film adaptation too.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2008) by Mary Anne Shaffer. Written recently, though set in WWII and shares the tone of the books in this section. A gem.
  • Miss Ranskill Comes Home (1946) by Barbara Euphan Todd. A satire about a woman who was stranded during much of WWII and returns to a world transformed. This and the next three are all re-issued by Persephone Books (which is how I found them in the first place).
  • Greenery Street (1925) by Denis Mackail. A young newly-married couple move into their first home.
  • High Wages (1930) by Dorothy Whipple. This is the most upbeat and optimistic Whipple book I’ve read, so it makes it on this list.
  • The Making of a Marchioness (1901) by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first novella feels very Miss Pettigrew. I’d skip the second novella, which takes a detour.
  • Many people adore Barbara Pym. She doesn’t quite do as much for me, though I found Crampton Hodnet (written 1940, published posthumously 1985) very funny. Excellent Women (1952), and Less Than Angels (1955) are also good reads. Her later novels get deathly depressing; avoid especially if you’re currently trapped at home alone.
  • A Suitable Boy (1993) by Vikram Seth remains one of my bestest reads ever. Multiple stories set in a newly independent India in the 1950s.
  • A Far Cry From Kensington (1988) by Muriel Spark. Though I love her writing, Spark is often too acerbic to make it to the cosy list, but this one works well here.
  • Although I haven’t read her widely, I think probably anything by Maeve Binchy will engross and delight. I loved Firefly Summer (1987) and The Copper Beech (1992), and most of all: Circle of Friends (1990).
  • The Cazalet Chronicles (starting with The Light Years, 1990) by Elizabeth Jane Howard are very soapy and, as such, highly compulsive. Based on her own memories of WWII and its aftermath.
  • The Best of Everything (1958) by Rona Jaffe. Another addictive read (if very trashy). About five young women who work at a New York publishing house in the 1950s.

Murder mysteries without gore

These are engrossing mysteries without the violent and depraved humanity angle that stops me reading more books of the genre. It’s not that any of these authors treat death frivolously – far from it – but the focus is in solving the crime and understanding human nature that led to it.

This edition: Abacus, 2003

I’m jealous of anyone who hasn’t already read the Bostwana-set No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (starting from 1998) series of books by Alexander McCall Smith, because there’s such treasure waiting to be discovered. I swoon every time. I love this world. I love Mma Precious Ramotswe, I love Mr JLB Matekoni, I love Mma Grace Makutsi (who reminds me of my mother’s housekeeper – infuriating at times, but completely trustworthy and much-missed when not around). These are more morality tales than whodunnits, though cases do get resolved with much satisfaction by the end of each story. It’s now on its 20th book.

Mma Ramotswe put an arm around the boy’s shoulder. “We don’t hate people, Puso. We don’t hate anybody.” 
He looked at her sullenly. “Why?” he asked. 
“Because hate makes you very tired,” said Mma Ramotswe. 
[From The Colours of Cattle]
More murder mysteries without gore
  • Nobody does it better than my favourite, Agatha Christie, of course. Try one of her less familiar ones: Crooked House (1947), Dead Man’s Folly (1956), and Death Comes as the End (1944).
  • For more golden-era crime, there’s always Dorothy L Sayers (I especially liked Murder Must Advertise, 1933) and Ngaio Marsh (A Man Lay Dead, 1934, and Artists in Crime, 1938).
  • Rumpole and The Penge Bungalow Murders (2004) by John Mortimer. The first story of defence barrister, Horace Rumpole.
  • Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert. Excellent murder mystery from British Library Crime Classics. Funny too.
  • With a Bare Bodkin (1946) by Cyril Hare. Well written and well plotted, plus witty. I’m so happy Hare’s books have been reissued.
  • The Red House Mystery (1922) by AA Milne. Yes, the creator of Pooh wrote a mystery novel as well. And it’s a page turner.
  • The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (1975) by James Anderson. This is pure pastiche, combining Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse, set in a classic country-house murder. Silly but fun. The two sequels are not as hot, but can be an untaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Classic ha-ha funny

This audio version: Blackstone, 2011

When I want to laugh laugh, I will pick up PG Wodehouse (it’s a South Asian thing). Though most famous for the Jeeves and Wooster books, my favourites are the Blandings novels, which start with Something Fresh (1915). A screwball comedy in print, this story involves an earl who absent-mindedly pockets a scarab belonging to his son’s fiancée’s millionaire father, and the attempts of competing parties to retrieve it. Because it’s written for laughs, it’s easy for forget just how elaborately clever the plots are, and it’s really this combination that makes this a gem.

One of two things would have satisfied them – either a burglar or a corpse. A burglar would have been welcome, dead or alive, but if Baxter proposed to fill the part adequately, it was imperative that he be dead. He had disappointed them deeply by turning out to be the object of their quest. That he should not have been even grazed was too much. There was a cold silence as he slowly raised himself from the floor.
More classic ha-ha funny
  • Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889) by Jerome K Jerome. A classic that’s available to read for free as it’s out of copyright. It’s very funny in a droll way.

I’d love to hear of your favourites!

If I didn’t care for fun and such,
I’d probably amount to much.
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.
— Dorothy Parker

Images of book covers from Open Library (click on any to go to the relevant page).

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