I have been back for a month. The long break and the fun and joy I had remain a positive resource of renewed energy and engagement with LIFE. The pile of books, real books, that I have read grows steadily and I am getting to know my granddaughter. The weather is wonderfully and, seemingly endlessly, hot and sunny, so I can sit on my balcony above the wharf, where the water swishes in and streams out, the black-headed gulls scream overhead and below the ducks, geese and one swan squabble over bread sent down from above: not precisely bread of heaven, merely stale loaves, burnt or uneaten toast. The fact that it is not actually very good for these birds has escaped notice. The gulls will catch pieces in the air, which is fun to watch, disappointing for the webbed footed ones below!
Real books! The smell of print, the heft of the physical weight, the pleasure of the turning page. An eReader has its place in one’s holiday luggage, but thereafter should be consigned to the drawer with the passport, money belt and all the other accoutrements that one would not be seen dead with walking the streets of London, unless one was also a tourist!
The pile of books include CJ Sansom Dominion, what a brilliant writer and what a marvellous book. England has not gone to war with Germany, the powers that be took the route of appeasement and Churchill is a hidden force, trying to galvanise resistance. The names are all there – their actions different.
A newish Sam Eastland novel, The Red Moth, and intricate thriller involving Inspector Pekkala, one time personal detective for Nicholas II, so faithful that it earned him the coveted title and mysterious insignia – The Emerald Eye. This adventure is his attempt to foil a German plot to steal the fabulous and famous Amber Room. That the theft did take place during the Second World War, it true, what happened to it thereafter remains something of a mystery, the most likely explanation for its complete disappearance is that is was burnt, amber (being resinous) is highly combustible.
The newish Willian Ryan, The Twelfth Department, comes from another Stalinist thriller writer. His detective Captain Korolev, I have mentioned before. If you haven’t started reading these thrillers, then either you don’t read thrillers or you don’t read my blog. Either way, you are missing out because William Ryan really knows his background stuff, so even though you are reading a novel, you are also experiencing what it was like not knowing who you could trust, who was whispering to whom and why, living on the edge. It really must have been terrible and we ought to know about it. Films like The Lives of Others, were not entirely made up and nor is Korolev’s world. Not unlike reading The Whisperers by Orlando Figes
A writer new to me, who does for Berlin what William Ryan does for Moscow, is David Downing. I have just begun his Station series, the first is Zoo Station, we meet the protagonists John Russell, a journalist and Effi Koenen an actress, living in Nazi controlled Germany on the knife edge of the declaration of war, the second novel Silesian Station ends just as war is declared. The evocation of what it was like, not only in Germany, but also Poland and Czechoslovakia, and indeed also in Russia, is breath-taking, this clearly is another writer who knows his historical background accurately, there are more to follow all in paperback.
I have also read the latest John Shakespeare novel by Rory Clements, Heretics. Elizabeth’s court was full of intrigue, betrayals, and women, not all of them supporters of the new religion, and then there was Spain. It all makes for an exciting and demanding life, and John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William, is busy uncovering plots in unlikely places, even right up close to the Queen herself. Gruesomely, bloodily dangerous and thrilling.
I read the latest Tracy Chevalier The Last Runaway, not perhaps her best book, but an insight into Quaker life in the early settlements of America, their abomination of the slave trade and what they did about it, legally and illegally. There is an interesting quibble about how many quilts there should be in a woman’s trousseau, at least eight, apparently. The Underground Railway has been written about before, not least in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however here it is seen through the eyes of a young woman newly arrived from England and her trials are rigorous enough, it is only when she starts helping runaways that her own life becomes perilous too.
Sarah Dunant’s Italian Renaissance novel Blood and Beauty I also read, the life of the Spanish Borgias once Rodrigo becomes Pope. A slightly different account from the HBO Series. This Pope is overweight, elderly and slightly gross, in appetite anyway; his children Juan, Cesare and Lucrezia are pawns in the game of power, but the lustrousness of their beauty hides a cruelty and passion for which they are now bywords. Lucrezia, alone, is painted in a more gentle light than is often the case.
On top of all these I read three books by Pat Barker. Life Class and Toby’s Room, both set in the environs of the Slade School of Art and the Second World War and a very different book Double Vision. Pat Barker is always a safe read, her books are beautifully written, her characters stand up from the page in 3D, I am not sure how much one learns from reading these books but they are a very pleasurable and rewarding place to be.
Get out there – support your local library or independent bookshop. ABANDON AMAZON. Read!