Tag Archives: A Ladder to the Sky

Thirteen Days in Poland, Half a Day in Slovakia, Two Books and the Ghost of Another 

H and I enjoyed our time in Poland last year so much that we decided to go back, this time combining a bit of gentle urban exploration with a few walks in the mountains. We started off in Gdansk whose beautiful old town reminded me of the Baltic States. All meticulously rebuilt, of course: like so many cities in Central Europe, Gdansk was flattened during the Second World War.

Given this summer’s dismal start in the UK, we were hoping for sunshine and we were in luck, spending much of the first few days lolling about on our riverside apartment’s balcony, wandering around the market buying things for supper with the odd outing including one to Oliwa Park, a particularly lovely stretch of green space. Sadly, the botanical gardens seem to have turned into a building site but there were gorgeous wild flowers flourishing in little patches of scrub all over the city, the kind of display that British gardeners spend years patiently coaxing into existence.

Towards the end of the week we took ourselves off to the small seaside town of Sopot, a short train ride away. It was sweltering by the time we arrived. Trudging to the end of the pier and back was distinctly unappealing so we turned off down a leafy path instead, ending up in the next small town by way of a delightful, ever so slightly rundown café for lunch.

We didn’t get up to much in the way of culture in Gdansk although we did visit the Polish Post Office, defended by its staff against the invading German Army who attacked it on September 1st 1939 in one of the first acts of the Second World War. It still operates as a post office – we bought some stamps there – and there’s a tiny museum attached which tells the story with no fuss or frills.

On Saturday morning we caught the super-fast, comfy train to Kraków for a night, spotting storks along the way. Despite its reputation as one of Poland’s finest sights, we preferred both Wroclaw and Poznan’s squares to the Rynek much of which we’d last seen under wraps for restoration. Sunday morning was spent ambling around Planty, the elegant tree-lined circular park which encircles the city, after dawdling over a particularly delicious breakfast at a pretty café before setting off for Zakopane in the foothills of the Tatras where we planned to spend a week walking although the heatwave put the kybosh on much of that.

Zakopane turned out to be delightful away from the main drag which is stuffed full of stalls aiming to flog tat to tourists. The town became popular as a resort in the nineteenth century and is full of quaint timber houses sporting a plethora of steeply gabled attic windows in the Zakopane Style developed by Stanislau Witkiewicz. The Jaszczurówka Chapel, gorgeously carved both Zakopane Style cottageoutside and in, is a particularly lovely example but it was the cottage hidden away in the woods across the road from our hotel that charmed me.

Far too hot for hiking crowded trails on our last day by which time we’d walked almost every square inch of Zakopane so we slipped over the border into Slovakia, driving to Levoča, a small UNESCO-listed town, beautifully restored. We’d spent a couple of uninspiring days in Bratislava three years ago but Levoča and the lovely countryside surrounding it made us both wonder if Slovakia might be worth another look some time. One last breakfast buffet and it was time to come home, bringing the dirty washing mountain with us.

And the books? I’d been planning to readCover image something by John Boyne for some time and A Ladder to the Sky looked as if it would fit the holiday reading bill nicely. Boyne’s literary anti-hero, Maurice Swift is an opportunist, a beautiful young man, obsessed with writing but lacking in the storytelling department, who will do anything to succeed. Stuffed full of literary allusions, Boyne’s novel is a witty, intelligent read which pokes satisfying fun at the book world.

Cover imageFriendship is the theme of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators which reminded me a little of Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina and Fran with its story of Sharon and Mel who meet at art college and go on to make a name for themselves as edgy cartoonists. Childhood secrets, thwarted love and the ravages of fame run through Whitaker’s debut which, although a little patchy at times, earned its place in my holiday luggage.

I had been expecting to include Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One here but when I opened it I found my copy had been misbound. Inside was a different book from the one promised by its cover, and not one that particularly appealed, leaving me in a fit of fretfulness about whether I had enough to read for the rest of the holiday.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2019: Part One

The looming dank dullness that is February here in the UK has been brightened by the prospect of some paperback goodies, beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny debut, Pretend I’m Dead, one of my books of 2018. Twenty-four-year-old Mona cleans houses for a living and falls hard for a junkie, taking herself off to Taos, New Mexico when he disappears. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing.

Whisper it, I’ve yet to read anything by John Boyne but so many people whose opinion I trust seem to rate him highly that it’s time I did and A Ladder to the Sky seems as good a place to start as any. An aspiring novelist’s chance encounter with a celebrated author in a Berlin hotel leads to an opportunity. The story that Erich tells him catapults Maurice to his own literary fame, but once there he needs another idea and he has no scruples about where it comes from or how he gets it. One critic described Maurice as ‘a bookish version of Patricia Highsmith’s psychopathic antihero Tom Ripley’ which sounds very promising to me

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in Cover image2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her. Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

That’s it for February’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other three should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new titles, they’re here and here. More soon…