The Children’s Book: A.S. Byatt

★★★★★

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.

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Partenope: George Frideric Handel (1730)

Handel: Partenope

★★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 21 May 2019)

It’s summer on the Bay of Naples and Partenope rules the roost. With her eager band of male followers and her chic Victorian swimwear, this queen of the sands is the last word in organised fun. But something’s up down at the beach. A rival gang, led by the flattering Emilio, is trying take over the next cove along; and Partenope’s newest beau, Arsace, looks set to steal her heart. If only an irritating little fellow called Eurimene would stop popping up to spoil it all! Hampstead Garden Opera relocate Handel’s comedy of manners to the end of the 19th century, when men were men (and had moustaches and stripy beachwear) and women ruled the waves. Brightly coloured, lively and full of fun, it was the most engaging version of the opera I’ve seen yet; better still, we had the good fortune to see an extremely promising cast of young singers.

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Walking to Aldebaran: Adrian Tchaikovsky

★★★★

Gary Rendell is living the dream. One of a handpicked international team of astronauts on board the Quixote, he’s been sent out to the very edge of the solar system to investigate a strange, gravity-defying structure known variously as the Artefact or the Frog God, due to the gaping holes in its surface that suggest eyes and a mouth. There’s no doubt that this object has been constructed by intelligent beings, but what is it? Gary and his team are there to find out. But when we meet Gary, some time after their expedition sets out into the Artefact, dream has become nightmare. He’s alone, desperate, driven half-mad by the psychological tricks of this alien labyrinth. As he fumbles his way through the darkness, he becomes aware of something scratching at the edge of his mind; something calling him; luring him. But Gary Rendell is in no mood to be lured. He’s been through hell and back; these endless corridors have changed him, and all he wants is to get home. But, when we’ve experienced so much, is it ever possible to go home? There’s certainly a monster in this dark esoteric maze; but is Gary its victim?

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Feet of Clay: Terry Pratchett

★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 19

All is not well in Ankh-Morpork. In itself, of course, there’s nothing unusual about that. Indeed, if things were all well in Ankh-Morpork, that’d be a sign that something’s definitely wrong. But things seem to be less well than usual. An elderly priest and a harmless museum curator have been brutally murdered; someone has poisoned the Patrician; the city’s workforce of golems are behaving in a suspicious way; and a group of plotters are scheming to return Ankh-Morpork to a monarchy. And, worst of all, Sam Vimes discovers to his horror that Nobby Nobbs might just be the long-lost heir to the Earldom of Ankh. Something must clearly be done; but what?

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Shadowlands: William Nicholson (1989)

Shadowlands

★★★★★

(Chichester Festival Theatre, until 25 May 2019, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh)

C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis is a confirmed bachelor. He and his big brother Warnie, a retired army major, live in comfortable companionship in a cottage in Headington near Oxford. Jack teaches English Literature at the University, at Magdalen, and gives popular lectures on how to square a profound Christian faith with the pain and suffering in the world. These are intellectual discussions – despite losing his mother at a young age, Jack has enjoyed an adult life which has protected him from the extremes of emotion. He lives in a world of scholarly, dusty bachelors; he enjoys intellectual sparring matches with his colleagues over sherry before Hall; and, to his academic friends’ amusement, he writes a series of popular children’s stories in his spare time. But Jack’s quiet, reserved existence undergoes profound change when he strikes up a correspondence with the spirited American writer Joy Gresham. English reserve, love and tragedy, faith, hope and loss come together in a gut-wrenching modern classic, currently showing at Chichester Festival Theatre with a magnificent central performance from Hugh Bonneville.

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The Baghdad Clock: Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

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Maskerade: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 18

Agnes Nitt, formerly of Lancre, has had enough. She doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life being known as the big girl with a lovely personality and great hair, and she isn’t going to meekly join Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as dogsbody in their coven. Instead, she’s going to Ankh-Morpork to become a singer at the Opera House. It sounds like a great idea, until she discovers that opera types are an odd bunch: neurotic, superstitious and obsessed with the resident Opera Ghost, who leaves maniacal notes with too many exclamation marks, and demands that the best box in the house is reserved for him. And things are about to get worse. Fortunately for the world at large, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have come to Ankh-Morpork too, just to keep an eye on Agnes, and they are more than a match for any man who ponces around in evening dress and a mask. A glorious parody of The Phantom of the Opera, this has always been an absolute favourite of mine, and it’s only got better on rereading.

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Austentatious: Holly Luetkenhaus and Zoe Weinstein

★★★

The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans

Some of you may remember that I reviewed a book on Sherlock fandom a while ago, which was published by the University of Iowa Press in their Fandom and Culture series. I’ve now been lucky enough to get another review copy from the same series, looking at the face of modern Jane Austen fandom. How has this very limited selection of original material been reworked, adapted and interrogated in the modern world? How can fans possibly find new things to say about novels that are 200 years old? You’d be amazed. This entertaining romp through ‘Janeite’ fan culture takes us from Colin Firth’s wet shirt to Clueless and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; from BBC adaptations to erotic fanfiction. Like Sherlock’s World, Austentatious is occasionally repetitive and could have done with a fiercer editor, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating celebration of the passion with which Austen’s works continue to be read, loved and reinterpreted.

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The Rapture: Claire McGlasson

★★★★

It’s healthy to be reminded, ever so often, that history can be stranger than any fiction. Claire McGlasson’s debut novel, which will be published on 6 June, brings to life an odd slice of British history from 1926, when the Panacea Society flourished in Bedford. Largely made up of women who had lost husbands, brothers or sons in the Great War, the Society is centred on the figure of Octavia, a prophetess and self-proclaimed Daughter of God, who claims to have been sent to pave the way for the return of Jesus. While Octavia’s convictions inspire many of her followers, the Society’s youngest member Dilys finds the cult atmosphere increasingly stifling. Dilys has never experienced any of the visions or visitations described by her fellow members and has concluded that God has no plan for her. But, when she introduces a new member to the community, Dilys dares to hope that maybe life will start to have a purpose after all.

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The Follies of the King: Jean Plaidy

★★

The Plantagenet Saga: Book 8

Last summer I had a bit of a run on Jean Plaidy in second-hand bookshops. She seemed to be the great historical novelist whom I hadn’t yet read (with the exception of Madonna of the Seven Hillswhich I read in November 2017). Having furnished myself with the vast majority of her works, I settled down a couple of days ago with The Follies of the King, the lamentable tale of Edward II. It’s the eighth book in her Plantagenet Saga but each seems to be pretty much self-contained and this just happened to be the first my hand landed on. Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve made a mistake; or perhaps this and Madonna of the Seven Hills were just duff choices. Published in 1980, this feels as if it dates from the 1950s instead, full of stilted melodrama, needless repetition and one-dimensional characters. While it jogged memories from my history degree, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but I fought the good fight and struggled through to the end.

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