The six week school holiday is coming to an end, and on Thursday I go back to work. Although, that’s not strictly true; I’ve been getting ready for the new term for the last fortnight – lesson plans and seating layouts and all the rest of it. But I’ve still had a clear three weeks away from the day-job, and a wonderful opportunity to get as much reading in as I possible. Experience suggests there will be a massive dip in my ability/capacity to read anything that doesn’t relate to my job as English Teacher. If I finish 2 or 3 books before half-term I’ll be doing really well.
Below is my list of what I’ve managed to read (in chronological order) since the end of July, along with a brief summary of what I thought of it. Feels like a healthy mix of crime and classics – some of them school related, most not – but all of them have given me something to take away. Even if I’m still not sure just what that is.
- The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. This is book five in the Martin Beck series, one of my favourite police procedurals, and godfather to all of the Nordic crime currently dominating bookshops and BBC Four. I’m savouring these; they are so solidly, cleanly written it’s only a matter of time before I shoe-horn an extract into one of my classes, an example of good prose
- The Butchers of Berlin by Chris Petit. A fat 500-pager, easily the longest book on my list. And by no means an easy read; another police procedural, but one set in Nazi Germany during World War Two, and one that encompasses the Holocaust, war crimes and the paranoia of living in a police state. I’m not sure I enjoyed it, but I’m glad I read it – Petit’s distinctive voice means that I’ll keep an eye open for his earlier thriller The Psalm Killer.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I tried reading this yonks ago and gave up after a dozen pages but I’m clearly made of sterner stuff now. This is the only one of Wilde’s oeuvre that I’ve read, but it’s made me keen to learn more. Lord Henry Wotton is one of the most irritating men in English literature, but I think that’s the point; and Dorian Gray’s inexorable descent into hedonistic amorality is chilling to observe
- The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. I’ll be teaching this in a few weeks, so thought I’d better familiarise myself with it. I wish I’d come to it without knowing about the context (and which is why I’m not going to reveal it here), and am mildly envious of my class who will learn more as the novel progresses. Boyne’s control of the narrative is exceptional, like a trap that you’re only vaguely aware is tightening around you until it finally has you by the throat. Which, of course, is the point.
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Also for school; and I need more Dickens in my life as my limited contact with him has always been enjoyable. Despite how sentimental Dickens (and this book in particular) is often accused of being, I found parts of this short novel genuinely moving. Even if I was reading it at the hottest time of the year.
- The King of the Rainy Country by Nicolas Freeling. Freeling is one of my favourite crime authors because his Van der Valk novels are unlike much else in the genre. In this one, the Dutch police detective is tasked with finding a runaway millionaire – although there is much more to this task than is first apparent. Freeling spent most of his life living in mainland Europe, and his Europhile view of the continent is very welcome, especially in these dark, post-Brexit days.
- Peace by Richard Bausch. I picked up a copy of this in a charity shop, off the back of a years-old recommendation in a newspaper ‘Books of the Year’ round-up. Set during World War Two, it follows three American soldiers on a hazardous mission in Italy. The elements, the enemy and their own consciences seem set against them in a beautifully, humane gem.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A quote on the front cover of Peace compared it favourably to Heart of Darkness, so guess where I headed next? This is the first of Conrad’s books that I’ve finished; and whilst his writing is dense and often maddeningly opaque, the story gripped me to the end and is one that will keep buzzing around inside my head for a while. The horror, the horror…