What I did on my holiday

I tried to be good last week and read some Improving Novels, after months and months of non-fiction, research and kids’ books.
It started promisingly enough, with Conspirators, by Michael Andre Bernstein. It’s been described as Proustian, and it is indeed a faceted gem of a book: faceted in many senses; densely and carefully crafted, its core able to be viewed from many perspectives, all slightly obtuse. Proust without quite so many semi-colons, perhaps, although Bernstein’s grammar and punctuation are impeccable and engrossing (if you watch comma placement as a spectator sport, which I do).
It’s a complex thriller, really – perceptive and unflinching, populated by an entire community of interesting, if not likeable, characters, slowly entrapping the reader in a compelling web of court politics and revolutionary cells, anti-Semitism and Messianic prophecies, and capturing the lumbering Zeppelin that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire before it crashed and burned. Over it all, at least in the mind of the know-all reader, hangs that stultifying fog of foresight: these bright, if silly, young revolutionaries will all soon be dead in World War One; this thriving Jewish community will be gone in another generation.
Things went a little downhill after that, with Elizabeth Knox’s Billie’s Kiss. I expected much of it, with all her awards and fellowships, and locals here raving about every new book. I admit that Daylight has been sitting in the To Read pile by my bed for a year – you have to be in quite a specific mood for a vampire novel, and I’ve never quite got there. Still, I launched into Billie’s Kiss with enthusiasm, and then found myself laughing out loud a few times in the first few chapters at jarring metaphors and ill-considered adjectives. But finally the plot carried me along through its currents, all Edwardian sideburns and sullen Scots islanders. Again, it becomes something of a thriller, and again the war clouds hang low. I read it in one sitting, which can’t be all bad, but finally felt let down by some rapid plot resolution and the tying up of character loose-ends which could have happily been left frayed.
That was the end of my experiment. I promise to try harder. But then I couldn’t resist the temptation of Richard Holmes’ Footsteps, following the travels and travails of RL Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft in Revolutionary Paris, and Shelley’s final years in Italy. The Wollstonecraft chapter led me on to Brian Dolan’s Ladies of the Grand Tour, and then the idea of Paris under siege made me pick up a pop history of the Comet Line, Freedom Line, paying tribute to the Belgian, French and Basque people who risked their lives to rescue airmen shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Now it’s back into the welcoming leaves of Jan Morris, with her final volume in the Britannia triptych, Farewell the Trumpets. That makes me happy.
But the more I read, the more books I urgently have to write, so I might just stick to Who Weekly from now on.

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