Thalia: Frances Faviell

★★★

Eighteen-year-old Rachel is a dreamy, idealistic student at the Slade and wants nothing more than to become a painter. When she paints an unflattering portrait of the local vicar, her aunt decides that this ungrateful girl doesn’t deserve to come on her planned trip to Egypt (despite Rachel’s obsession with Akhenaten and Nefertiti). Instead, Rachel is packed off for a year-long placement with an English family living in Brittany, to act as companion to their teenage daughter Thalia. Rachel’s first impression is that the Pembertons are much the same as any other military family wintering in a cheap, congenial climate. But, when Colonel Tom Pemberton returns to his regiment in India, she begins to notice deeper currents swirling through his household and, in particular, running in the veins of unloved, overlooked, lonely Thalia.

Continue reading

Space Opera: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★

‘In space, everyone can hear you sing’. That tagline more or less sums up the spirit of this novel. When I said that I was looking forward to reading more of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, I wasn’t expecting anything quite like this. I don’t even know if I can conjure up its atmosphere for you. Imagine if Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams got together, drank a bottle of gin, smoked something illegal, watched Velvet Goldmine, and then decided to write an intergalactic, sequin-drenched skit on the Eurovision Song Contest. And turned it up to eleven. It’s mad. No, it’s more than that: it’s exuberantly, gleefully insane. Its labyrinthine sentences spill over the pages like a Victorian lady bursting from a corset several sizes too small. But perhaps the biggest surprise is its humour: an anarchist, deliberately absurdist brand which feels very, very British.

Continue reading

The Serpentine Cave: Jill Paton Walsh

★★★½

There’s always a frisson of excitement when you come across a ‘new’ book by an author you like. Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels is one of my all-time favourite novels, as many of you will probably know, and so I was excited when J gave me The Serpentine Cave, which he’d unearthed in a second-hand bookshop and which I’d never heard of before. It’s very different in spirit – a tale of quiet, private truths rather than the epic resonances of Knowledge of Angels – but it’s nevertheless a moving tale of a woman trying to piece together her identity from the fragments left behind on her mother’s death.

Continue reading

The Jealous One: Celia Fremlin

★★★½

Celia Fremlin’s works have recently been reissued by Faber Finds, in neat little ebooks with come-hither pricing. I hadn’t heard of her before, but was intrigued by her themes of suburban unease and mystery, and chose The Jealous One as my introduction to her novels. First published in 1964, it occasionally shows its age, but its essential story is one that doubtless remains painfully familiar in the present world. Rosamund and Geoffrey have been married for years, united by their gossiping about their London neighbours and by shared despair over their feckless teenage son. But when the exuberant Lindy moves in next door and inches her way into their lives, Rosamund discovers how painful jealousy can be. And then, one day, she wakes from a feverish sleep and a dream of murder… to find that Lindy has vanished.

Continue reading

The Five Daughters of the Moon: Leena Likitalo

★★★

The Waning Moon Duology: Book I

In a towering glasshouse at the Summer Palace, a new marvel is unveiled to the Crescent Empress and her five daughters. The Great Thinking Machine will be able to calculate numbers at incredible speed and will simplify the administration of this vast empire. But this is more than a scientific demonstration. Little Alina, the Empress’s youngest daughter, feels the danger rolling out from the vast contraption and fears what it may bring, and what it might have to devour in order to work. And she also fears its promoter: her mother’s unsettling, ambitious adviser, Gagargi Prataslav. In this novel, Leena Likitalo reimagines an alternate universe based on the world of the Romanovs, in which magic and visions go hand in hand with the first deep stirrings of revolution.

Continue reading

Circe: Madeline Miller

★★★

For her second novel, Madeline Miller returns to the fertile world of Greek mythology, and to another figure often overshadowed by a swaggering hero. This time her protagonist is Circe, sorceress and nymph, ruler of one of the many islands where Odysseus manages to get lost en route from Troy to Ithaca. Artists have always loved Circe: John William Waterhouse, in particular, seems to have been obsessed with this exotic enchantress. And yet Miller invites us to look beyond the magic, the sensuality and the unfortunate habit of turning people into pigs. As she did in The Song of Achilles, she gathers strands of myth from various sources and reveals little-known aspects to a familiar figure. Like Penelope, Miller is a master weaver; and yet there’s something at the heart of the book that doesn’t quite work.

Continue reading

Dancing Bears: Witold Szabłowski

★★★

True stories About Longing for the Old Days

There’s a fascinating premise behind this book by the Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski. Its first half is devoted to the tale of how Bulgaria’s entry into the EU obliged it to forbid the keeping of dancing bears, thereby destroying one of its cherished traditions. Following the ‘rescued’ bears in their new home, Szabłowski looks at how the animals are coping with their new ‘freedom’ and also follows the fate of their former keepers. In the second half of the book, the bears’ clumsy encounter with their new freedom forms the framework for a series of vignettes assembled in various Eastern and Central European countries, whose peoples are still struggling to define their identities and purpose in the aftermath of Communism. Unfortunately the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part, but the book as a whole offers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world struggling in that gap between death-throes and birth-throes.

Continue reading

Waiting for the Last Bus: Richard Holloway

★★★★

Reflections on Life and Death

Until two years ago, no one close to me had died; not since I’d been old enough to understand it. But 2016 came with chill winds and ruthlessness, and the last two years have seen the loss of five close family members. It hasn’t been easy. But it has had one useful outcome. I used to be afraid of death. It was a terrifying transmutation that I didn’t understand and didn’t want to acknowledge. But necessity has changed that and now, in the light of my family’s losses, I’ve had to accept it as an unavoidable part of human life. This all explains why I was drawn to this book, in which Richard Holloway – former Bishop of Edinburgh; thinker; compassionate critic; agnostic – uses his own old age as a spur to think about how we can live well and, when it comes to it, die well. Open-hearted and generous, studded with poetry and his memories of friends, it’s rather beautiful: inspiring and, oddly enough, rather upbeat.

Continue reading

The Museum of Second Chances: A.E. Warren

★★★

Museums and curators don’t have enough of a place in fiction in my opinion, unless they’re doing something frankly unlikely, like hunting down relics in the Amazon. And so I pounced on this novel about a post-apocalyptic future in which a new society is doing its best to overcome the tragedies of extinction – but at what cost? It starts with a young woman getting her dream job. Unlike other Sapiens teenagers at Thymine Base, Elise Thanton isn’t going to spend her life slaving in the manufacturing factories. On the contrary, she’s about to become the Companion to one of the exhibits at the Base’s Museum of Evolution. Her experiences will lead her to question the justice of the world in which she has grown up, and to confront the very nature of humanity itself.

Continue reading

The Judgement of Paris: Thomas Arne (1742)

Bernstein: The Judgement of Paris

(Brook Street Band at St George’s Hanover Square, 6 April 2018)

Some of you may remember that I saw Thomas Arne’s pastoral comedy The Judgement of Paris two summers ago, in the beautiful rectory garden at Bampton. This production for the London Handel Festival may have lacked the bucolic surroundings, but it made up for it in the quality of the cast, which marshalled a real dream team of young British singers. Yet the evening had a surprise in store: a bit of audience interaction, which pitted Arne directly against Handel and treated us to some highlights from the older composer’s Semele. Both The Judgement of Paris and Semele were based on libretti by William Congreve, whose sprightly, slightly rakish poetry still raises smiles.

Continue reading