The bookcases in my parents’ house are probably a pretty good indication of how mine will be thirty years from now. Books double stacked as there is no longer enough room to get away with a neat, single-layered display; shelves heaving under the weight of ancient paperbacks, their faded covers and yellowed pages a testament to their long life. Some old favourites have been revisited so many times that their pages are loose and the spines creased so severely that they are no longer identifiable. These shelves are the result of a lifetime of reading; they are also the place where I began my own reading journey.
Both my parents have always read, but it was my mum whose books marked the start of my foray into “grown-up” reading. I read as a child, of course, but as I gradually grew out of children’s literature the question arose, what next? Young adult fiction is obviously a huge part of the book market today, and has spawned some of contemporary culture’s most recognisable series and franchises – The Hunger Games, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight….the list goes on. But when I was going through that awkward transition phase into adolescence, twenty-plus years ago, books specifically for teens were pretty few and far between. I have very vivid memories of trotting along to the local library where my choices were Sweet Dreams or Point Horror. (Being the delicate girl I was I opted for Sweet Dreams every time!) But once I’d tired of a series where EVERY book involved a girl changing herself to get a guy, before realising that the guy she should be with is the one who likes her for what she is, I was pretty much out of options. So the next logical step was to go to my mum’s bookcases and start working my way through her collection.
Luckily for me my mum was – and still is – a great reader of the classics. She’s the reason I fell in love with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. I’m sure if they hadn’t been under my nose as a teenager I would have discovered them later in life, but I think I probably enjoyed them more then than I would if I read them for the first time now. I remember they held a certain mystique for me when I was younger, probably because it felt like opening a door to a world – and a language –completely different from my own. In fact, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I started reading contemporary novels; up until that point, reading for me meant Anthony Trollope or Wilkie Collins. Even at university I entrenched myself firmly in the medieval, Renaissance and Victorian periods, rarely venturing past the turn of the twentieth century. I remember when I first got into modern fiction I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it; now, working in the book trade where I see so many enticing new works turn up in front of me every day, going back to a classic is a rarity, an indulgence. But whenever I pick one up I love the feeling that I’m disappearing into a book that I know my mum first fell in love with maybe fifty years ago.
The prospect of a summer holiday, albeit five months away, has got me ridiculously excited. Already I’m mentally reclining by a sparkling pool, G&T in one hand and book in the other, cocooned in that blissful bubble of relaxation that only comes from being several hundred miles away from the demands of the daily grind….but I’m getting ahead of myself. Until I’m on that plane, I’ll have to make do with the figurative escape that, thankfully, is easily found within the pages of a book.
Thinking about it, it’s fairly unusual for me to read a novel based entirely in a familiar setting. More often than not there’s at least an element of history involved, but I also tend to gravitate towards books set in foreign countries. And it’s definitely a conscious choice to avoid anything that resembles my own life and experiences too closely; I get quite enough of that every day as it is! Exotic holidays may be few and far between, but I can always rely on reading to take me to a different place as often as I like. So, in case there are no opportunities for escape on your horizon, here are…
My top 5 books for getting away from it all!
- “Miss Garnet’s Angel” by Salley Vickers – I’ve never been to Venice, but after reading this book I felt as if I had. There’s a real intimacy between the characters and the city, and it’s this relationship between people and place that binds this gorgeous novel together.
- “An Artist of the Floating World” by Kazuo Ishiguro – you just can’t have a literary world tour without including one of Ishiguro’s Japanese novels. I love the fact that his serene prose belies the turmoil bubbling under the surface of his characters – and increasingly throughout Japan itself.
- “The Wedding Officer” by Anthony Capella – back to Italy, this time during the Second World War. A romantic, sunny, yummy novel that will make you hungry for some proper Italian food…
- “Big Stone Gap” by Adriana Trigiani – this is the first in a series of novels set in a sleepy Virginia town. It’s not the most glamorous of literary voyages, but the setting is so vividly realised that it becomes almost a character in its own right. By the time I’d finished I felt like I’d been living in Big Stone Gap; it’s several years since I read it but even now I could describe every detail.
- “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh – if you want to venture somewhere truly out of the ordinary, then this is the book for you. Set among an archipelago if islands in the Bay of Bengal, we witness the arrival of two outsiders into this somewhat mystical landscape and journey with them into an environment that very definitely has its own rules.
Happy reading….and bon voyage!
The past week has not been a good week for blogging. This is due in part to the fact that I’m currently under a blanket debating whether to reach for the Beechams or the Olbas Oil first, my head fuzzy, and my nose and sinuses a festival of phlegm that has well and truly repelled any muses that might have considered visiting me to provide inspiration for my writing. I also have to admit, however, that this week I have fallen prey to the temptation that is the scourge of book lovers everywhere: starting more books than I can hope to finish anytime soon.
A quick glance at the “in progress” pile on the coffee table will reveal the following.
- “Armadale” – I have spent a lot of time with contemporary fiction of late and suddenly had a hankering for a good old Victorian classic
- “Look who’s back” – a satire, translated from the German original, imagining what might ensue if Hitler hadn’t in fact died at the end of the Second World War but was alive today and promoting himself through the many media outlets we have at our disposal
- “Flood of Fire” – I must resist the temptation to start gushing about this now as I will definitely be returning to it for blogging purposes at a later date; suffice to say it’s AMAZING
- “A Reunion of Ghosts” – an advance reading copy that I consider myself extremely lucky to have got my hands on as it’s turning out to be one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in a long time
- “Death in Florence” – despite being a fiction girl first and foremost, I do always like to have some non-fiction to hand as well, and I’m a sucker for an engrossing history book
I love having book to suit every mood and it’s incredibly rare for me to have just one on the go. And, if I’m honest, my concentration span is not the longest you’ve ever seen; I’m very easily distracted, so it suits me to be able to flit from book to book without too much in the way of commitment. The downside is, of course, that I will have lots to write about in a couple of weeks’ time – but not a whole lot right now! So it’s pen down, I think, and back to the reading. I will endeavour to return before too long…
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!