The Sleeper in the Sands: Tom Holland

★★★½

Tom Holland is nowadays best known as a historian and translator of Herodotus, but he started his career, back in the 1990s, as a novelist, favouring eerie, rather supernatural historical themes. The Sleeper in the Sands ticks all those boxes with aplomb, as it tells the story of the ambitious archaeologist Howard Carter, who is on the brink of making the most fabulous discovery of his career. As he waits for the arrival of his patron Lord Carnarvon, Carter finds himself brooding on what he can expect to find behind the sealed doorway of this unprecedentedly undisturbed tomb. Great treasures, certainly, but also dark whispers of something else. For strange papers have come into Carter’s possession, warning him of a terrible curse and recording a story that has been lost to the sands for millennia: the tale of the heretic Pharaoh Akh-en-Aten…

Continue reading

Radamisto: George Frideric Handel (1720)

Handel: Radamisto

★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 13 October 2018)

Baroque naming conventions can be confusing. An opera is often named after the highest-ranking character, or on rarer occasions its protagonist, but English Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Radamisto leaves you wondering what this prince of Thrace has done to earn to the title role. Surely this should be called Zenobia or Polissena? While the men skulk on the sidelines, Handel (and ETO) give agency to the opera’s two feisty women, who are forced to take the initiative when their menfolk prove unequal to the task. Set in early Christian Armenia, this is a timeless story of how a ruler’s lust can unsettle his judgement and lead his country to ruin – which nevertheless holds out the possibility of change and redemption. Kicking off at the Hackney Empire, and then going on a tour all over England, this is a visually gorgeous production, slightly undermined by an uneven cast.

Continue reading

Chariot of the Soul: Linda Proud

★★★★½

The end of September was an exciting but rather fraught period for me at work, so I didn’t get round to reading or writing anywhere near as much as I hoped. With the dawn of October, I could breathe a sigh of relief and lose myself in books once again, and the first one I turned to was a novel I’d been saving for a time when I could really appreciate it. Some of you will remember how much I enjoyed Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy and her prequel A Gift for the Magus. I’ve been intrigued ever since I heard that her new book would take her into unfamiliar territory, in the mysterious and dark days of early Roman Britain. Now at last I’ve had the chance to curl up with Chariot of the Soul, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be: a sensitive, thoughtful book that looks at our small island and touches on very timely themes about identity, assimilation, compromise and confrontation with a great pan-European power.

Continue reading

Mantegna and Bellini

Mantegna: Presentation in the Temple

(National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019)

Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was not used to being refused. She was one of the most enlightened and demanding patrons of the Italian Renaissance, a well-educated woman who appreciated antique sculpture as much as the work of her brilliant contemporaries. However, in the years around 1500, Isabella found herself rebuffed by not one but two of the greatest painters of the day. The first was Leonardo, whom Isabella pursued in vain in the hope of getting a painted portrait (she eventually made do with a portrait drawing). And the second was Giovanni Bellini, whom Isabella approached via her Venetian agents. She invited him to contribute a picture to her famous studiolo – her private study, where she displayed a bevy of sophisticated allegories – and her instructions were that Bellini should paint an historia: a picture based on historical, mythological or allegorical themes. Bellini, very politely, declined. Isabella’s agent wrote to explain: it wasn’t that the elderly painter (Bellini was about sixty-five at the time) wanted to spite Her Ladyship, far from it. He just baulked at the thought of painting something so different from the devotional pictures and portraits which were his strength. Besides, the agent added, Bellini didn’t wish to set himself up against Andrea Mantegna, who had been the Gonzaga court artist for forty years.

You can understand Bellini’s wariness. Mantegna was an acknowledged master of the complex, esoteric allegories that Isabella and her courtiers so loved, and a difficult man to boot; but this was more than a case of professional discretion. Bellini and Mantegna were brothers-in-law. For more than fifty years, they’d been aware of each other’s work, borrowing ideas and motifs, experimenting with the same themes while developing strikingly distinct styles. But their rivalry had so far been a friendly one, and Bellini had no desire to affront his famously irritable brother-in-law. It is this strange relationship – a little-known connection between two of the greatest Renaissance artists – which forms the topic of the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, and it’s one which is particularly close to my heart: I’m co-curating this show, alongside three wonderful colleagues, and we’ve been preparing it for two long years. Finally, the opening day is almost here, and I thought it was high time to give you a sneak peek. (Get a cup of tea first. It’s a long one.)

Continue reading

Twelve: Jasper Kent

★★★½

The Danilov Quintet: Book I

It’s 1812 and Russia faces dark days, as Napoleon’s great army sweeps eastward, pushing all before it. Some are even beginning to wonder whether they might see the ultimate sacrilege: a French invasion of Moscow. For four daring young soldiers, resistance is the only answer. Plucked from their regiments, Vadim Fyodorovich,  Maksim Sergeivich, Dmitry Fetyukovich and our narrator Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov form a special ops unit – and are waiting for some reinforcements to join them very shortly. Dmitry has enlisted the help of a band of men with whom he fought against the Turks some years earlier, whom he nicknames the ‘Oprichniki’ after the bloodthirsty bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible. The Oprichniki certainly prove their worth, striking by night and leaving the French forces depleted and terrified – but Aleksei begins to feel that something isn’t quite right. Who are these mysterious warriors from the dark fringes of Europe? And just what kind of bargain has Dmitry Fetykovich made with them on Russia’s behalf?

Continue reading

Downfall of the Gods: K.J. Parker

★★★★

When I was in Oxford last weekend (in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles, to be precise, which is extremely good; you must go), I found something remarkable: a K.J. Parker novella that I’d never even heard of before! Unable to believe my luck, I snaffled it and read it all in one go the following day. It was exactly what I needed: undemanding but witty, irreverent and smart in all the right ways. While, like most of Parker’s fiction, Downfall of the Gods has a Grecian tinge, it looks further back in time, beyond the days of the Byzantine-inspired empires in his Engineer and Two of Swords trilogies, to an older time, when men still have to worry about annoying the gods – and the gods themselves can’t always be trusted.

Continue reading

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Becky Chambers

★★★★

Wayfarers: Book I

Despite enjoying the recent reboot of the Star Trek series, I’ve never been much of a girl for spaceship-based sci-fi. However, I’ve been seeing this book pretty much everywhere for the last three years, and my powers of resistance only go so far. And what a pleasure it was to finally read it! Equal parts space opera and character piece, it takes us onto the tunnelling ship Wayfarer – scruffy, banged together, and home to a hugely lovable crew. This is more a story about friendship, compassion, tolerance and cooperation than it is about techno-jargon or deep-space exploration: at its heart is a group of people, of various species, who have lived and worked together long enough that they have become a kind of endearingly dysfunctional family. And, as the novel opens, they have a new addition to their numbers: Rosemary Harper, freshly-trained clerk and space newbie, who is willing to go to the other end of the galaxy to escape her past.

Continue reading

Mythago Wood: Robert Holdstock

★★★★★

Mythago Wood: Book I

Mythago Wood was first recommended to me five years ago, but it was only last weekend that I saw a copy in my local library and pounced. I hadn’t been at all sure whether I would like it – indeed, I hadn’t been at all sure what it was about – but reading it has been a truly remarkable experience. I suppose the book does fall under the fantasy banner, but it’s actually about myths and legends, the collective unconscious, and what Peter Ackroyd calls in his book Albion ‘the English imagination’. And it’s about woods: those deep, old English woodlands which can give you a thrill of unease when walking through them simply due to their antiquity. What might be hiding in the depths of such primeval forests? Playing with notions of relativity, time and space, Holdstock creates a world of such fascinating allure that I was captivated from the very first page. I may have taken half a decade to get round to this recommendation, but by heaven it was worth the wait.

Continue reading

Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

Continue reading

Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting young singers.

Continue reading