My Name is Lucy Barton: Elizabeth Strout

★★★½

This book has been everywhere, the last year or so, and I’m aware that I’m coming to it rather late. I found it a strange novel: sobering, yes, but also frustrating. It flirts with the promise of autobiography; shares selectively; and sometimes overshares when it would have had more impact to leave questions open. I suspect its themes of the bond between mothers and daughters is what has made it such a book group favourite, but the bond it holds out to us is a troubling one: threaded through with incomprehension, abuse, misery, anxiety and – only at the last – the possibility of compassion and comprehension.

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The Hangman’s Daughter: Oliver Pötzsch

★★★

The Hangman’s Daughter: Book I

There’s an amusing story about a time, some years ago, when I decided to read The Hangman’s Daughter. It had recently come out and I’d heard good reviews, so I trotted off to the library and borrowed it. I did my best to get into it, but it was rather staid and old-fashioned and I really wasn’t impressed. Then I realised what had happened. I’d taken out The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter by Ambrose Bierce. Having now, finally, found the right novel, I enjoyed this tale of small-town life and witchcraft in 17th-century Germany, although I’d have liked it even more if it were a bit more streamlined.

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Canaletto and the Art of Venice

Canaletto: View of the Salute

(Queen’s Gallery, London, until 12 November 2017)

In 1762, the young George III purchased en bloc the collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice. In doing so, he became at one stroke the owner of the greatest collection of Canaletto paintings and drawings in the world. These works have been in the Royal Collection ever since and now, gloriously, they’re brought together in a stunning exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, offering an abundance of Venetian delights. All in all, if you have any fondness for Venetian splendour, you must not miss this show.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 12-21 May 2017)

This spring, Hampstead Garden Opera are trying something new: their first Italian opera staged in the original language rather than English translation. The opera in question is Poppea, a perennial favourite of mine. Who could resist this blend of scheming, sexual abandon, murder and imperial arrogance? Certainly not me. Presented on a stripped-back set, this production focuses the attention firmly on the two women, Ottavia and Poppea, competing for the heart of Rome’s indolent, decadent emperor. With sterling support from Musica Poetica, under the baton of Oliver John Ruthven, and a number of exciting voices to add to my watchlist, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon out.

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The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro

★★★½

Gosh, what a strange novel. Part historical fiction, part fable, this book feels wilfully enigmatic, its meaning hovering just beyond reach, like a shattered reflection in water. This is only the second of Ishiguro’s novels that I’ve read (the first, some years ago, was Never Let Me Go) and so I’m not sure which elements are typical of his writing and which merely adopted for this book. One thing which the two books have in common, though, is that an apparently simple story turns out to have a much deeper significance. I have a sneaking suspicion that The Buried Giant has several layers, so this post is primarily an attempt to tease out meaning from this dreamlike tale of an ancient British past.

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The Four Seasons: Laurel Corona

★★★½

When two young sisters are abandoned on the doorstep of the Pietà in Venice in 1695, they enter the care of an extraordinary institution: part foundling hospital, part secular convent, and part conservatorio. The girls of the Pietà learn to love God through the medium of music, whether by playing an instrument or by singing in the weekly Masses, which draw admiring crowds to the chapel beyond the grille that prevents any of the performers being seen. And the soloists of the Pietà become stars, their talents as well-known as any opera singer’s, even though they must remain screened away. Of these two abandoned sisters, one, the playful and exuberant Chiaretta, will turn out to have a voice that wins her legions of admirers. The other, Maddalena, looks in vain for an instrument that sparks the inner core of her being. But then she discovers the violin, at around the time that the Pietà hires a young priest to help with giving lessons: a virtuoso violinist and budding composer with flaming red hair, named Antonio Vivaldi.

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Half a King: Joe Abercrombie

★★★★

The Shattered Sea: Book I

When I found this book in the library, I decided to spend some quality time with Joe Abercrombie. I’ve meant to read his novels for ages and now, having enjoyed my first taste of alleged ‘grimdark’ thanks to K.J. Parker, and savoured Abercrombie’s short story Two’s Company, I think the time has come. I’d always intended to start with The Blade Itself, but this story caught my imagination right away. A king murdered in strange circumstances. A prince robbed of his throne by a wicked uncle, and sold into slavery. And a ragtag band of galley-slaves stumbling into the wilderness, dreaming of freedom… and revenge. Oh yes. This was definitely my kind of book.

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The Night Brother: Rosie Garland

★★★½

Edie and her brother Herbert, nicknamed Gnome, do everything together. As children, growing up above their mother’s pub in late 19th-century Manchester, they roam the streets by night, sneaking into firework shows and exploring their town. But, as the years go on, Edie begins to resent Gnome. Every night he drags her out, forcing her to be more daring and naughtier than she wants to be. By day she’s left empty and ragged. And the worst thing is that Ma and Nan tell her Gnome doesn’t even exist. But he does. He comes every night, regular as clockwork, and Edie begins to dream of ways to control him…

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: Jenny Nordberg

★★★★½

The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s the message of this astonishing work by the Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, who worked with women in and around Kabul in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When she was told, discreetly, that a contact’s six-year-old son was actually a cross-dressed girl, Nordberg discovered that this was merely the tip of an iceberg. Her enquiries led her to unearth an open secret in Afghan society: an entire social practice, hitherto  unreported in the wider world, of bacha posh, literally meaning ‘dressed as a boy’. Mixing biography, psychology and anthropology, this is a deeply illuminating journey into the social constructs of an unfamiliar world.

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Wadjda

Wadjda

★★★★

Wadjda is ten years old. She likes sneakers, rock music and making mix tapes for her friends. She sings pop songs with her mum when they’re washing up and wonders why her dad doesn’t spend more time at home. She makes friendship bracelets to sell at school, and dreams of saving up to buy the green bike in the toy shop down the road. In many ways, she’s just like any little girl you know.

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