I’d like to introduce you to Captain Alatriste: former soldier, swordsman for hire and general swashbuckler of the highest order. You may only just have met him, but I guarantee it won’t be long before you’re in thrall to his reckless spirit, slightly rugged yet indisputably good looks and his penchant for getting involved in all sorts of questionable skulduggery. His moral compass may occasionally veer towards the skewwhiff, but you can rest assured it will right itself in the end. He’s the best thing to happen to sword fighting since d’Artagnan and I would love you to fall for his charms just like I did.
Captain Alatriste is the eponymous hero of a series of books by one of my favourite authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte. If you love The Three Musketeers, as I do, then you’ll lap up these tales of despicable villains and derring-do set in seventeenth century Spain. They read like an old-fashioned adventure story, and yet they still feel fresh and exciting. There’s something about the moustachioed swordsman, cloak on his back and flamboyant feather in his hat, which still holds an enormous appeal, one that hasn’t diminished since Porthos, Athos and Aramis declared themselves to be one for all and all for one over a hundred years ago. The Captain has a certain world-weariness about him to be sure – after all, he’s a soldier whose years in combat have exposed him to the worst of human nature as well as the best – but his stories are told through the eyes of his protégé, Iñigo, whose youthful naivety and rash enthusiasm mirror our own sense of excitement at the adventures that unfold. As the books progress, Iñigo matures, and in doing so becomes more aware of the emotional fatigue lurking behind his master’s heroic exterior. Yet that is precisely what makes Captain Alatriste such a compelling character; he may despair of the corruption, duplicity and betrayal that pervade the world of men, but you never quite believe that he will turn his back on justice and hang up his sword for good. After all, he is a hero, and the reader has absolute faith that he will stay that way.
So if you’re feeling like you could use a knight in shining armour in your life – or you’re simply in the mood for some action-packed escapism – track down one of these novels and make the acquaintance of one of the most magnetic characters you’ll ever meet.
The seemingly endless wait for a favourite author’s next book is a feeling familiar to all book lovers. My heart certainly goes out right now to all the Game of Thrones fans I‘ve encountered who are increasingly desperate for George R R to release the next instalment – it’s a frustration I know all too well. The sense of expectation is, I think, also tinged with a certain amount of trepidation when there’s been a very long gap between novels, especially when you’ve absolutely loved the author’s previous work. Will it live up to all our hopes? The last book that generated that sense of almost unbearable anticipation for me was Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”. I adored “The Secret History”; “The Little Friend”, although I will never love it as much as her first book, was definitely not a disappointment. Would “The Goldfinch” be as good again? Sadly I didn’t think so; although there were strands of the storyline that gripped me completely there were other fairly lengthy episodes that didn’t. And yes, I was a bit disappointed, because although I enjoyed it to an extent I just couldn’t love it as much as I desperately wanted to. But I guess that’s the way it goes with anything in life for which you have to wait, and for every disappointment there will be plenty of blissful moments when you feel that your patience has been well and truly rewarded.
So what’s the next book I’m waiting for? It’s Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Girl”, a book whose publication date I have been obsessively checking FOR YEARS. Last time I looked (this afternoon!) it was still sometime in 2016; but you can be sure that whenever it finally hits the shelves I will be clearing my diary to make time for this special event. I look forward to the rush of having that new book by a favourite author in my hands, brand new, unopened and ready to be devoured – because it’s a feeling like no other.
Have been lucky enough to get my grubby little paws on “Flood of Fire”, the final instalment in the frankly mind-blowing Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh – massive thank you to John Murray Publishing! Reading will commence shortly – look out for my review on this page very soon!
As February 14th rolled round I started thinking I should probably write a blog about love and romance in fiction. Despite much scouring of my shelves for inspiration, however, none was forthcoming. The greatest love stories ever? There’s pretty much nothing left to say about those, surely. Jane Eyre and Rochester, Elizabeth and Darcy… when it comes to literature’s most enduring romances there are too few surprises to warrant 500 words of blogging space. So, love and romance abandoned, I decided (somewhat randomly) to move on to the theme of music, a subject that has provided the backdrop for some of my most favourite novels. It was only after I started pulling together my top my top 5 that I realised: almost without exception, all these novels with music at their heart are also profoundly moving love stories. Handy for me of course, as it brings me back full circle to my original idea of a Valentines blog; but also perhaps an interesting comment on how our artistic and romantic passions are inextricably connected. So without further ado…
My top 5 musical novels!
- “Music and Silence” by Rose Tremain – I love almost everything that Rose Tremain has written, and the winning combination of music and history (2 of my favourite things) might just make this my favourite of her novels by an inch!
- “The Conductor” by Sarah Quigley – a reimagining of the events surrounding the creation of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and a compelling portrait of a turbulent time in Russia’s history.
- “Longing” by J D Landis – this is based on the real-life romance between composer Robert Schumann and virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck. Not all moonlight and roses by any means, but the sorrow that often permeated their relationship makes it ring all the more true.
- “Symphony” by Jude Morgan – another love story based on the life of a classical composer, this time the tormented genius Hector Berlioz. Passion walks hand in hand with madness in this beautiful but heart-rending tale.
- “An Equal Music” by Vikram Seth – an understated, slow-burning love story of two souls who live for music … and each other? Gorgeous.
Happy Valentine’s day!
My initial reaction on picking up this novel was that the central idea of a woman with dementia struggling to solve a missing person case was perhaps a bit gimmicky, the dementia aspect of the story purely a novelty device to grab the attention of potential readers. In actual fact, the portrayal of the main character’s disease is as important and engaging, if not more so, than the missing person mystery itself.
As events unfold, what emerges is a haunting picture of a mind in deterioration; memories and identity become shredded into smaller and smaller fragments which, by the end of the book, are almost impossible for Maud to piece together. At first, she stands at the counter of a shop and can’t remember what she wanted to buy. By the time her story draws to a close her mind is failing to the point where even her own daughter has become a stranger to her. We feel every frustration, every flash of rage and every wave of panic as those around her inevitably fail to understand what’s going on inside her head.
For Maud, memories from decades ago fuse indistinguishably with present events, and before long the reader realises that there may be more than one mystery here to be resolved. As to the fate of Elizabeth herself, I don’t want to reveal too much; suffice to say that, as you might imagine given this most unreliable of narrators, all is not necessarily as it first appears. However, the point of this novel is not to keep you guessing until the final page – it becomes clear relatively early on where the story is headed. The missing Elizabeth is ultimately a symbol of Maud’s emotional isolation, separated as she is not just from Elizabeth but from those who are still by her side yet unreachable. It is not just those who are physically absent who are lost once dementia takes hold.
I was a huge fan of this book, primarily because it was so much more sensitive to its subject matter than I’d anticipated, and it left me with a lingering sadness that I didn’t expect. It was so much more than the novel I imagined it would be.
Do you have any books on your shelves that cause a twinge of shame? Do you keep your Booker Prize winners in the living room for all to see while your Regency romances are relegated to a discrete corner of the spare room, safely away from disapproving eyes? After all, almost every aspect of our lives is subject to the judgement of others, and our choice of reading material is no exception.
Years ago, as a recent English Literature graduate entering the commercial book world for the first time, I was, I’m ashamed to say, an incredible book snob. My biggest concern was reading the “right” things, and getting as many of those right things under my belt as possible. Ten years ago my bookshelves would never have seen Edith Wharton snuggled up quite happily against Trisha Ashley, or Vikram Seth rubbing shoulders with Rachel Hore. Luckily, the intervening years have substantially altered my perception of what it means to love reading.
One of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read was “The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure” by Adam Williams, a gloriously exotic, melodramatic romp set in nineteenth century China. The title and the lurid red cover give you a fair idea of what to expect; there are gruesome deaths and moustachioed cads seducing women in caves, and it’s all a ridiculous amount of fun. One of the least enjoyable books I’ve read, on the other hand, was the lauded, prize-winning “Wolf Hall”. In fact I found it so unreadable that I admitted defeat part way through. I’m sure the 21 year old me would probably have laboured through out of a vague sense of duty to a book that had been declared to be a great work of literature. And it is a great work of literature without doubt – but just not for me. There are too many books in the world to waste time on the ones we don’t love, and who are any of us to judge where another person’s enjoyment may be found?
Finally, I’m happy to say, I’ve reached a point where I have no guilty pleasures when it comes to books, simply because I don’t believe there’s any such thing. We read for many reasons: to learn, to escape, and yes, sometimes just so we can say we’ve managed to finish “War and Peace”. But fundamentally we read for pleasure, and any book that gives it to us is nothing to feel guilty about.
In my welcome blog post I wrote a bit about the value of book recommendations and it started me thinking: which literary discoveries do I owe to the friends who put them into my (sometimes sceptical) hands? Which books would I never have picked off the shelf if left to my own devices? I plan on sharing more of my top 5s in the weeks to come, but to get the ball rolling here’s my first list…
My Top 5…..recommendations that have exceeded expectations!
- “This Thing of Darkness” by Harry Thompson – a bit of a doorstop, this has an unenticing painting of a Victorian sailing ship on the cover. I anticipated 800 pages of tedious maritime shenanigans. It’s actually one of the best books I’ve ever read. Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that…
- “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett – I love my historical fiction, but for some reason I held out against this for years. Possibly the lack of a sumptuous Tudor dress on the cover had something to do with it. In any case, the lovely lady who persuaded me it was worth a go did me an immense service; no one can make you root for a hero or detest a villain more than Mr. Follett.
- “Rivers of London” by Ben Aaronovitch – I should probably make it clear from the outset that science fiction and fantasy are pretty much the only genres I almost never touch. This is one of only two fantasy series that I’ve ever enjoyed, possibly because the author does such a fantastic job of melding the fantasy element into a world that we can all recognise.
- “Instructions for a Heatwave” by Maggie O’Farrell – I had always overlooked Maggie O’Farrell based on that inexplicable sense I’m sure we all get sometimes that she just “wasn’t my thing”. This novel wrung many emotions out of me without ever becoming sentimental or overtly manipulative, and really made me appreciate her skill as a writer.
- “Clayhanger” by Arnold Bennett – this novel will always have a special place in my heart as it was the first book recommended to me by my mum; to read this tale of love and family amid the Staffordshire potteries at the turn of the twentieth century is to think of her, and the many literary doors her double-stacked bookshelves opened to me.
I would love to think that maybe one of the books I’ve persuaded someone else to read will one day make it into that person’s own top 5….I love being surprised by books myself, and I love surprising others even more!