Sylvester: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

Or, The Wicked Uncle

Things are busy at the moment and I don’t have much brain space to spare, so I turned gratefully to the next novel on my Georgette Heyer pile. This was Sylvester, which several people have picked out as one of their favourites. And it’s no wonder: it’s vintage Heyer, the literary equivalent of crumpets by a roaring fire on a winter’s night. From the moment our arrogant but misunderstood hero meets our stubborn, bookish heroine, there’s no doubt what’s going to happen, but that’s not the point. As they lock horns over the course of a book stuffed with warmth, wit and adventure, the question isn’t ‘what?’ but ‘how on earth?’. In my current state, it was exactly what I needed and I might even go so far as to name this my favourite Heyer after the nonpareil These Old Shades.

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The Humans: Matt Haig

★★★★

Professor Andrew Martin is, for one dazzlingly brief moment, the most brilliant man on the planet. The next, he has vanished off the face of the earth. Unfortunately for Andrew Martin, we’re not alone. You see, all those people who wondered if there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe were absolutely right. They were just wrong when they assumed it’d want to get in touch with us. Or, more specifically, that said intelligent life would want us to get in touch with it. And so, when Andrew Martin solves the Riemann hypothesis and holds the secret of exponential human advancement in the palm of his hand, the watching extraterrestrial lifeforms decide that he must be stopped. To stop one man is easy enough: an abduction; an empty chair; an unexplained disappearance. But to stop an idea? That’s more challenging. And so our unnamed alien narrator grudgingly agrees to assume the appearance of Andrew Martin, in order to make sure that all traces of his remarkable discovery are destroyed. But to do that, he needs to understand humans. And that’s where the real fun is going to start.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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Prince of Thorns: Mark Lawrence

★★★★

The Broken Empire: Book I

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus on the blog (The Silent Companions was a scheduled post and rather took me by surprise). I’m in the middle of a frantic time at work and so I’ve neither been reading nor writing as much as I would like. However, I have managed to work my way through a few non-art-related books recently and wanted to share them, because they’re rather good. I’m starting off with my first encounter with Mark Lawrence, the godfather of grimdark, whose name has come up repeatedly since I started reading Joe Abercrombie and Anna Smith Spark. And the recommendations have been absolutely spot-on. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gripping, bleak and brimming with black humour, it’s a classic revenge story and features a teenage antihero so twisted he’d send Joffrey Baratheon running for the hills.

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The Silent Companions: Laura Purcell

★★★½

When a young widow travels to her dead husband’s family home, after only a few months of marriage, she believes that her greatest challenge will be in mastering her grief. But The Bridge is an unsettling place: a rambling old house, unloved and worn, with a meagre staff of taciturn servants and a history of unpleasant accidents. This is a Gothic tale of a slow, creeping kind, best savoured on a dark winter’s night beside the fire, in which supernatural events sit side by side with very real social tension.

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Deerskin: Robin McKinley

★★★½

Fairy tales were originally born as dark things, a world away from the pastel-coloured sugar of Disney’s princesses, and they weren’t always meant for children. They were ways of rationalising the brutalities of life, of creating a happy ending beyond the horrific events that might be suffered. Fairy tales deal with infanticide, child mortality, forced marriages, murder and child abuse and yet Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is based on a tale (Donkeyskin) deemed so particularly unpalatable that it’s rarely published, even though it was originally written by Charles Perrault. With grace, sensitivity and compassion, McKinley turns this little-known story into a powerful tale of self-healing.

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Half a War: Joe Abercrombie

★★★½

The Shattered Sea: Book III

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s young-adult trilogy, which I’ve used as a way to ease myself into the considerably grimmer and darker world of his adult novels. This concluding instalment of the Shattered Sea trilogy already breaches some more troubling themes than its predecessors. This is a tale of blood and senseless slaughter; of moral decisions taken by the immoral. It’s a story which represents the truly brutalising force of war: not that men and women lose their lives, but that they lose their honour and their humanity in thrall to weapons more powerful than themselves. Inventive to the last, Abercrombie’s world turns established fantasy on its head and left me grinning at its impudent audacity.

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The Cardinal’s Man: M.G. Sinclair

★★½

This, like Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel born from a painting, from a striking face that seems to look out at us across centuries and to spark a shock of fellow-feeling. While Tracey Chevalier’s famous book took its inspiration from the coy glance of a Dutch teenager, Sinclair’s story is inspired by a much more direct confrontation: Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Don Sebastián Morra, in the Prado, dating from 1645. Using this powerful image as a starting point, Sinclair reimagines Morra’s life in a fictional biography that carries us from the bleak shores of Normandy to the glitter of Paris in the time of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Spain, oddly enough, features less than you might expect. It is an ambitious book, and its championship of this fascinating but obscure figure is to be celebrated; but ultimately the novel is a fantasy, which makes no reference to the few known facts of Morra’s life. Moreover, it never quite manages to overcome some stylistic and compositional shortcomings.

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The Roanoke Girls: Amy Engel

★★★★

It’s every girl’s dream. When Lane’s reclusive mother dies, she assumes she’ll be alone in the world, but to her astonishment her mother’s estranged parents seek her out. Moving back to her mother’s childhood home, Roanoke in Kansas, fifteen-year-old Lane is suddenly no longer an orphan but part of a wealthy, loving family presided over by her charismatic grandfather. She even has a new best friend in the form of her lively cousin Allegra. And so, as Lane adjusts to the life of a Roanoke girl – one of the golden few, the object of fascination, desire and envy for the rest of the folk in town – she begins to wonder what on earth drove her mother away. There’s just one strange coincidence that troubles her. As Allegra puts it herself, ‘Roanoke girls never last long around here. We either run or we die.’

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The School of Jealousy: Antonio Salieri (1778)

Salieri: The School of Jealousy

★★★★

(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 September 2017)

Full of wit, farce and playfulness, The School of Jealousy was an instant hit, becoming one of the best-loved operas in Europe within a decade of its premiere in 1778. It told a story that was immediately accessible: a jealous, bourgeois buffoon locks away his pretty wife, only to bring her to the attention of a philandering nobleman. It’s a tale of love, lust and forgiveness, scripted by the poet Caterino Mazzolà and tweaked here and there by the young Lorenzo da Ponte. Musically, it sparkles: vivacious, ironic and colourful, it shows that Salieri in his prime was already a master of the comic idiom that would become indelibly associated with a certain younger contemporary of his.

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