It has been a while since I wrote about what I am reading and so I decided to tell you about some of the books I have enjoyed over the past year. Maybe you need a few ideas for your holidays. When I was teaching and time was even more precious, I relied on my good friend Sara to sort out the ‘wheat from the chaff’ and so she only recommended the books she considered ‘a good read’! Even though I am now retired a number of years, I still rely on her to steer me in the right direction.
‘Holding’ by Graham Norton
A story set in a fictional Irish village where human remains are found leads to the unravelling of a series of secrets. What I loved about the book, apart from the storytelling, was Norton’s excellent characterisation. Multi-layered and emotionally realistic, it is easy to empathise with the loneliness of several of the inhabitants and as the story progresses, we learn what has brought them to their present predicaments.
Underlying the skilfully paced plot is a pathos and sadness for those who loved and lost. But there is also a gentle humour which surprised me; the gregarious and sometimes outrageous chat-show host is perhaps better known for his lack of subtlety.
‘Different Class’ by Joanne Harris
Perhaps you read ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris. I loved it, but I am even more enthralled with her dark psychological thrillers set in a private boys’ school called St Oswald’s in Yorkshire. I read ‘Gentlemen and Players’ a few years ago, but have just finished ‘Different Class’. A former teacher, Harris portrays the idiosyncrasies of certain teachers and petty rivalries in the staffroom absolutely perfectly.
A new career head has been drafted in to deal with a crisis situation and he threatens to destroy (according to the main character, Latin teacher, Roy Straitley) everything that was good about the school. It is very much a case of the old guard, who believed in ‘talk and chalk’ (as one of my own former colleagues used to say) versus the bright, whippy, new way of teaching with new technology such as PowerPoint. (It is 2005!)
The book cleverly moves between Straitley’s narration in 2005, his memories of what happened in 1981 and the diary of one of the pupils at that time. Gripping and engaging on so many levels, this is one book you might want to stay up all night to finish.
‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout
If you want to read something a little more complex, then this is perhaps the one for you. Lucy Barton, the narrator, has to spend a protracted time in a New York hospital following a routine operation and most of the book deals with the five-day visit of her mother whom she has not seen in years.
The mother-daughter relationship is central as is coming to terms with the past. Lucy’s childhood was one of abuse and hardship, with little love. The story is inside her head and this makes the narrative more fragmented as does her tendency to question the veracity of her memories.
Simple and elegant prose make it very easy reading, but much is left unsaid and there is a sadness and loneliness that will haunt you long after you have finished it.