Have you ever found yourself seeking out a place/restaurant/monument/park mentioned in a book you have loved? Has a place ever inspired you to read a book? This has happened not infrequently to me – aided, of course, but my delight in travel and discovering new places.
When I moved into the old town on arriving in Nice in September of 1999 and opened my windows wide from my first floor apartment, overlooking the central square, amongst the Babel of noise beneath me, two language groups dominated – the inevitable French-speakers and a vast and LOUD array of Italians. I was soon to make friends with an Italian polyglot, and my decision to add an extra language to my bow was cemented.
A couple of summers later I decided to take it to another level and signed up for a two week language course in Ostia Antica, the old Roman port. I had a blast (learnt a little Italian), ate a lot of pasta and gelato and visited as many historical sites as I could, including the very extensive ruins of Ostia. These archaeological remains are wonderfully preserved, easily rivalling Pompeii or Herculaneum. That was August.
In September I started my annual book list as school librarian and began browsing through various reviews, stumbling over a title that would have left me indifferent just a couple of months earlier. “The Thieves of Ostia” is the first in a long series of historical novels by Caroline Lawrence. It is set in Ostia Antica, the harbour of Ancient Rome in the last month of the reign of the Emperor Vespasian. Flavia Gemina, a Roman sea-captain’s daughter, solves her first mystery, the disappearance of her father’s signet ring. She makes friends with her new neighbor, Jonathan and his Jewish family, and buys the African girl, Nubia, at the slave market (and promptly sets her free). This little group also manages to solve the mystery of the tragic slaying of Jonathan’s dog, encountering a mute beggar boy called Lupus. Each of these 4 characters, typical of the melting pot of the Roman era, is strongly developed and they, as well as the intriguing plot and historical depth, sold me quickly on the series, the Roman Mysteries. I appreciate that the author does not shy away from describing some of the horrors of the Roman period. Later books take the foursome to other famous Mediterranean locations of the day, like Ephesus, Delphi or Rhodes. The four protagonists portray Roman civilzation from four very different cultural perspectives and facts are absorbed effortlessly as they are woven into the fabulous fictitious tale.
I so enjoyed the first story, that the following year I invited the Caroline Lawrence to do a presentation at our annual Book Week. I caught her at the beginning of her fame and I think now you probably need to make requests years in advance! You will see from her website that Caroline has a great rapport with her young fans and takes them very seriously. Her website is also a formidable example for children’s book authors. She was a resounding hit with our primary school students, turning each hour she had back just under 2000 years and enticing us into a Roman mystery. Since this first book in 2001, Caroline has written 16 more in the series, which has also been adapted into a TV series by the BBC (haven’t seen this yet). Take some time to read what some of her fans have written on her website to see the extraordinary success this author has had. To think if I hadn’t made this summer trip I might have missed this wonderful opportunity to introduce a series to our library, which continues to inspire our middle graders.
So, tell me, have you visited anywhere that has provoked you to read a certain book?