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!
I have been in the book trade for 13 years, so it will come as no surprise that I’m a voracious reader. It goes without saying that reading is in itself a source of endless pleasure, but the act of devouring, absorbing and contemplating the words and their meaning is only the first part of the story. Books are my passion, and how can a passion truly be fulfilled if it isn’t shared with others? Its comparison to a burning flame is an old analogy but nevertheless an apt one, for an unshared passion will either engulf and consume the self – or flicker and die out completely.
For me the satisfaction of placing a book in someone’s hand that they never would have discovered otherwise is a feeling like no other, and that’s a big part of the reason I decided to start this blog. If just one person falls in love with a book as a result of my recommendation then I consider that a great success! I am also keenly aware of the value of other people’s recommendations to me; some of my favourite books have been ones that I would never have considered reading if it hadn’t been for the fervent endorsement of my fellow book-lovers. All the computer algorithms in the world are no substitute for conversation when it comes to finding your next great read.
It’s no exaggeration to say that books and the sharing thereof have opened more inspirational and emotional doors in my life than anything else I can name. They have provided an escape during turbulent and stressful times. They have both vindicated and challenged my beliefs. They have ignited friendships – and maybe even a romance or two. Yet perhaps the greatest power of the book is its role as an ever-expanding window through which to view and experience our shared humanity. Centuries pass, and the formats through which we absorb the written word continue to evolve; but the things that make us what we are – our loves, needs, desires and fears – are seen time and again, like a perpetual heartbeat driving our human story. To read is to put a finger on the pulse of humanity, to feel its history live and breathe….to feel oneself alive.