Monet and Architecture

Monet: Houses of Parliament

(National Gallery, London, closed on 29 July 2018)

And I’m late again in posting about an exhibition. Sorry about this: summer travelling really isn’t conducive to getting things done on time. Anyway, it’ll be a good way to look back on a lovely show. Now, I’ll be upfront: I have not traditionally been a great fan of Monet. I don’t dislike his pictures – he doesn’t make me shudder, as some late female nudes by Renoir do – but, when I’ve seen his paintings in museums, they’ve rarely moved me to anything more than dutiful appreciation. As ever, much of my indifference was due to a lack of understanding. And that’s why the National Gallery’s present exhibition was such a revelation to me, because it rescued those waterlilies and seascapes and rivers from their chocolate-box ubiquity and reframed them as part of a dynamic story of experimentation and evocation. Monet was a painter of light and air and water, but he was also an inveterate painter of architecture, and this exhibition shows how he used a variety of man-made structures to order his compositions, emphasise the interplay between man and nature, and display the transformative power of light.

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Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

★★★★

I remember Helen wrote about this with enthusiasm some years ago and, since then, I’ve been keen to read it. Fortunately I found a copy during a very ‘productive’ recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and pounced upon it with great glee as ideal summer reading. Although I’ve had Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels sitting on my shelf for some time, this is the first of her books that I’ve actually read and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But with delight I found myself drawn into its deliciously Gothic modern tale of a governess in a remote French chateau: a tale of avarice, greed and attempted murder. After all, when you are alone in the world, who can you trust?

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I Am Dragon (Он – дракон)

I Am Dragon

★★★★

(directed by Indar Dzhendubaev, 2015)

Remember those classic fantasy films of the 1980s and 1990s: WillowLegendThe Never-Ending Story; or Labyrinth? They managed to combine magic with darkness, appealing to the lively imaginations of children but also hinting at something deeper and more troubling, something that lurked beyond the brink of adolescence and adulthood. After all, these films are adventures but they’re also all coming-of-age stories. And I was reminded of them by this sumptuous Russian fairy-tale, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, which boasts a strong young heroine, an improbably gorgeous hero, and a classic story about learning to know who you really are. If I were ten years old, I’d have absolutely adored it, and even now I thought it was rather lovely. If you’re looking for a way to distract children (or yourself) on a dark, wet afternoon, and if subtitles don’t hold any fear for you, you could do a lot worse than turn to this little gem.

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The Corset: Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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Sherlock’s World: Ann K. McClellan

★★★

Fan Fiction and the Reimagining of BBC’s Sherlock

In December 2013 at the BFI, Caitlin Moran persuaded the unwilling Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch to read from an explicit homoerotic fanfic based on their characters in the BBC’s Sherlock series. The internet condemnation was swift. Fans felt that Moran had betrayed the unspoken rules: that fanfiction is written by fans for fans and that it’s shared in a safe space. The author of the fic in question, who hadn’t been consulted, was humiliated and mortified that two of her idols had been made to read her story out as a joke, and that her work had been singled out by Moran as an example of the embarrassing extremes of Sherlock fandom. Obviously it was an ill-judged move on Moran’s part and I feel deeply for the poor fan whose heartfelt writing was held up for a cheap laugh. But this episode only came about because Sherlock has created such a broad, lively and vocal fandom – especially extraordinary given there are only twelve episodes in the four seasons to date (plus a special). This scholarly study, to be published in October, delves into Sherlock fandom and forms an introduction to fan culture more generally.

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The Silver Tide: Jen Williams

★★★★

The Copper Cat Trilogy: Book III

Now back in London after some adventures with my parents, I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of posts about books, plays and operas, so do bear with me. First of all, it’s time to say goodbye to the dauntless heroes of the Black Feather Three, because this is the last book in Jen Williams’s fantasy series. As you might expect, Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian find themselves up against their greatest challenge yet and, in the course of a book filled with pirates, mages, haunted forests, gods, the fabric of time and, of course, almost certain death, there’s hardly time to draw breath. I’ve certainly enjoyed the series: all the way through, Williams has managed to combine the key components of sword-and-sorcery with a knowing humour that keeps it all very lively and modern. And I’ve realised that I’m really going to miss the three main characters. Especially Wydrin.

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Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

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The Light Beyond the Forest: Rosemary Sutcliff

★★★½

The King Arthur Trilogy: Book II

I haven’t yet read The Sword and the Circle, the first part of Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the legends of King Arthur, but the trilogy really doesn’t need to be read in sequence. The Light Beyond the Forest is a children’s novel, yet it’s one written with grace and poetic sensitivity (as is everything by Sutcliff), telling the story of the Grail Quest. Thereby it tackles some fairly weighty issues: trust, honour, truth, loyalty, temptation, sacrifice and evil. If I’d read it as a child, I think I’d have been deeply impressed by its grandeur; reading it now, I’m struck by its lyrical simplicity and by the way it boils down a complex mix of Christian and pagan legends into a highly readable story.

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Afternoon of a Good Woman: Nina Bawden

★★★½

When I was in primary school, we had a visit from Nina Bawden: I’ve no idea why she should have come to a modest school in a distinctly undistinguished small town, but it clearly made a deep impression on me. I bought Carrie’s War, got it signed and, since then, I’ve always associated Bawden with children’s books. So it’s been a surprise to find out that actually she wrote numerous books for adults, and this happens to be the first one I found. It unfolds during the course of one day, as middle-aged Penelope – a magistrate, wife and mother – sits in judgement at the Crown Court with her colleagues. But this is no ordinary day, for Penelope has decided to leave her husband. And so, as she finds herself up against the letter of British justice, she finds herself revisiting her own past and wondering, if her own life was laid out for public scrutiny, how she would fare…

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The Cleft: Doris Lessing

★★★

Doris Lessing is an author who’s always intimidated me, simply by virtue of having won the Nobel Prize and thereby, obviously, being a Great Name. I’ve been shilly-shallying over The Golden Notebook for the past few years, so when I stumbled across this curious book in a charity shop, I thought it could be an interesting way in. And, oh, it’s a very odd thing: part fantasy, part fable, part allegory. It focuses on the Clefts: a primitive society of parthenogenic women who only ever give birth to female children. And then, one day, a monstrous creature is born with horribly deformed genitals. The Clefts expose it, as they do all damaged infants, but then more of these Monsters are born and, before long, the Clefts find themselves struggling against the rise of a new population, who are so similar to them and yet so horrifyingly, incomprehensibly different: men.

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