The Charioteer by Mary Renault ***
Renault is one of the Virago authors whom I have most been looking forward to reading, particularly because April so adores her. The Charioteer has been recently reissued, and many new reviews can be read in major publications, most of which praise it highly. From the start, I felt that I was reading something ultimately special. Renault’s writing is absolutely lovely, and her characters and scenes are so very believable.The many years which pass between the chapters is an interesting technique. Laurie, our protagonist, jumps from being a five-year-old to a seventeen-year-old applying to Oxford, and at the next juncture, he is twenty-three. Despite all of the lost time between chapters, it does feel as though we get to know him rather well. The Charioteer, which deals with Laurie’s homosexuality, is a very sad novel at times. A lot of pain has been woven into his story, manifesting itself both physically and emotionally. Overall, I found that the story was an interesting one, and Renault certainly addresses some important and topical issues, but my qualm with it was that I could not warm to Laurie. I also found that I enjoyed the first two chapters far more than the rest of the novel. Regardless, I would still very much love to read more of Renault’s work.
Before I Die by Jenny Downham ****
I first read Before I Die when the paperback came out. I did enjoy it, but found it incredibly chilling, coming as it did just a couple of years after my own grandmother passed away from cancer. After watching ‘Now Is Good’, a 2012 film which is based upon the book and which stars the lovely Dakota Fanning, a re-read was prompted.
Before I Die tells the story of Tessa from her own perspective. Four years previously, she was diagnosed with a form of leukaemia, which has become terminal. Tessa has made a list of all the things which she wants to do before she passes away. The novel is so very sad, even when you are prepared for what is coming, but Downham handles the topic so sensitively. Tessa’s narrative voice is incredibly strong. She is not always the most likeable of characters in terms of her actions, but everything she does is consistent with the shattering news which she has to face. In this way, Downham has rendered her book rather a gritty read at times. I liked the way in which she has blended several different stories together, and the way in which she shows how Tessa’s illness affects those around her, as well as herself. I enjoyed Before I Die far more the second time around, and to everyone who has read and adored John Green’s beautiful The Fault In Our Stars, I say go and read this.
The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy ***** (re-read)
Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas books are absolutely beautiful, both in terms of the words and illustrations. I first read The Christmas Truce, which tells the lovely story of the British and German soldiers putting down their arms during a First World War Christmas, and spending a peaceful day together, swapping gifts and playing a football match, last year, when I spotted it in the lovely Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange. This is a book which I will gladly read every single year, and one which I will never tire of.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde ****
I absolutely adore Oscar Wilde, and this is one of just two works of his which I had not yet read. The sense of place throughout this poetry collection is stunning, and his writing sublime. I adore his use of language. A wealth of subjects have been considered here – Milton, Nelson, Ancient Greece, death, nature, Scandinavian myths and legends, travelling, religion and history just to name a few. Sadly, I did not quite fall in love with The Ballad of Reading Gaol enough for it to rank amongst my favourites, but it is still lovely. My favourite poems were ‘The Harlot’s House’ and ‘Les Ballons’, which you can read below.
Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies;
Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like dancing girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silver dust.
Now to the low leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.
Then to the tall trees they climb,
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.