I began with Charles Nicholl's The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which takes a lawsuit in which Shakespeare was a witness, and that includes the only record of his spoken words, and uses it to reconstruct details of the Bard's life (and those of his landlords, neighbours and associates) in London. The book has obvious attractions for anyone as fascinated as I am by the social history of London, but to begin with I found it slow-going and thought it added little to James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Earlier this year, I also read Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, which (even if you don't agree with its thesis about the playwright's secret Catholicism) throws fresh light on the plays' meanings by filling in much of the contemporary political and religious context. Nicholl's interpretations of the dramas seemed thin by comparison. However, the book grew on me, as I became caught up in the author's detective-like quest through the archives, its pleasures and frustrations reminiscent of those experienced by every amateur family historian.
On holiday a couple of years ago I saw a German man reading a book entitled Nachtzug nach Lissabon. This was shortly after my first visit to Lisbon, and during a period when I was reading everything about the city I could lay my hands on. I failed to find an English translation until recently: in the interim Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier has apparently become an international bestseller. The book is strongly reminiscent of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, with its quest to uncover the secrets of a distinguished family living through political upheaval (for Barcelona read Lisbon, for the Spanish Civil War read Salazar and the resistance to his quasi-fascist regime), but with an overlay of literary and philosophical introspection. Initially I found the quest absorbing, with its knowing references to Pessoa, Eca de Queiros et al, but after a while I grew weary of the extended quotations from the invented works of the fictional philosopher at the heart of the story. The book was just far too long.
For light relief after Mercier's tome, I whiled away a day or two on Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin, a kind of coda to his 'Tales from the City' series. It was light, frothy and mostly enjoyable, both updating and rounding off the stories of the characters from the original series. The best scenes were those in which proudly gay and newly 'married' Michael visits his straitlaced Floridian family, which demonstrated that Maupin has lost none of his flair for depicting the comedy of social embarrassment. But others things about the book I found irritating, such as its throwaway remarks about the Iraq war ('killing children for oil') and its assumption that the only people supporting the war on terror are right-wing fundamentalists. As in much infantile leftist reaction to 9/11, the characters who act as the author's mouthpiece evince much more anger over the inconvenience of new security measures than at the original crime, and the simplistic pieties of the Bush administration find a mirror-image in the narcissistic, black-and-white 'Left Coast' worldview of Maupin's characters.
Next up were a pair of books about World War Two. Firstly, War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, by Iris Origo, an Anglo-American who married an Italian count, restored the villa and gardens at La Foce, not far from where we were staying in Tuscany, and then found herself caught up in the German occupation and Allied liberation of Italy. The book is written in a simple, straightforward way, but is extremely moving and utterly compelling. The account of leading a party of refugee children across open country, dodging both German gunfire and Allied bombing, was like a much less sentimental version of the final scene in The Sound of Music.
Finally, I read Alan Furst's The Foreign Correspondent, a story of Italian emigres and resistance fighters in the late 1930s, which moves between Paris, Barcelona, Genoa, Prague and Berlin, and has Furst's usual compelling mixture of idealistic left-wing politics and rattling spy thriller. Not quite as satisfying as Night Soldiers, but still streets ahead of the competition.