Apart from marvelling at the splendours of Florence and Sienna, I also somehow managed to get through a fair amount of reading, ending with two unqualified successes, one ‘mediocre’ and one ‘never want to read this kind of book again’ …..
I took with me Staying On by Paul Scott, which won the Man Booker prize in 1977. I first read this novel about 15 years ago and thought at the time it was somewhat ‘light’ in comparison to the grand themes of the Raj Quartet series. A stage version featuring Nadim Sawalha, in one of the key roles, did nothing to change my view. But reading it afresh, I discovered that the comedy which had been played up fully on stage, masked the poignancy of a story of undeclared affection, loneliness and insecurity. I’ll post fuller comments on this later in the week………
My second novel also had a domestic setting but couldn’t have been more different than Staying On. I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels – and knew very little about her other than she wrote one of the early ‘definitive’ biographies of her friend Charlotte Bronte. But the interest spurred in her work through the BBC adaptation of Cranford, encouraged me to give her a go. The experiment wasn’t a resounding success. It felt a very skimpy and insubstantial read – not really a novel so much as a series of episodes. I kept waiting for a plot line to develop but just as something began to sound interesting, it was resolved within the next chapter. On screen, it would come across a bit like a soap opera with the audience as voyeurs looking through the windows of a bunch of spinsters who fret about candles and bonnets the correct form of address for a titled widow. I like my novels to have more substance so its unlikely I will find my way to Mrs Gaskell again.
A work colleague who is also an avid reader, recommended Tatiana de Rosnay to me. It wasn’t until I started reading Sarah’s Key that I remembered having seen the film version earlier this year. Even though the plot was therefore familiar, I found myself engrossed by this dual timeline story of one of the most horrific events in French history – the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. More than 13,000 Jewish men, children and women were removed from their homes by French police and held for days in a baking velodrome without food or water before being transported to labour and concentration camps. It’s an indication of how engrossing this story is, that I started reading Sarah’s Key as the flight took off and barely lifted my eyes from the page until we had touched down… I haven’t finished it yet but am hoping to sneak a few hours with it later on.
Monsters of Men
Just before my holiday started, the winner of this year’s Carnegie prize for children’s literature was announced as Patrick Ness. It was a remarkable achievement since he also won last year’s award with Monsters of Men. After three pages I experienced a sense of panic that somehow the download of Monsters of Men to my Kindle had gone wrong and I had only half the book. The story seemed to open in the middle of a battle with characters that were never described but appeared to have a back story. Only later having done some rapid web searching did I find that Ness’s book was the last in the Chaos Walking trilogy that featured the same characters and this action was a progression from number two in the set. The only reason I had this book on my list because I thought (mistakenly it now appears) that it was on the reading list for my upcoming children’s literature course. Having never managed to see the appeal of science fiction or fantasy I knew this would be a challenge. I struggled on for another 30 pages or so but abandoned it when I learned it’s the newest Ness book I should have been reading. What a relief – his new one A Monster Calls – is undoubtedly dark in tone since it’s about a young boy coming to term’s with his mother’s fatal illness, but at least it doesn’t feature space ships…..