The Black God’s Drums (2018): P. Djèlí Clark

★★★★

You know the most annoying thing about reading on a Kindle? You have no idea of how long your book is, or where you’ve got to. Imagine the scene: I’m thoroughly absorbed in P. Djèlí Clark’s atmospheric tale of sky pirates and steampunk in an alternate-universe New Orleans. The initial action has rounded off nicely, and I’m savouring the (surely) imminent start of the plot… when, suddenly, boom. The end! What I’d thought was a novel turned out to be a novella, a mere 114 pages; and what I thought was the first act turned out, in fact, to be the whole. I actually felt bereft: I wanted to know so much more about the characters – the streetwise urchin Jacqueline and the dashing pirate captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine – but it looks as though this is it, for now. My disappointment, I stress, was simply due to the book’s abbreviated length. Clark’s evocative story shows how quickly an accomplished author can draw you into their world, with intriguing characters backed up by a glorious narrative voice, full of bayou rhythms and Yoruba folklore.

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The Snake Pit (1946): Mary Jane Ward

★★★★

Virginia Cunningham finds herself sitting in a garden, while a strange man asks her about voices. She doesn’t quite understand how she came to be here. Has she gone out for a walk? Why, then, isn’t she dressed more smartly? Where is her husband Robert? Presently, another stranger called Grace urges Virginia to follow her, gently rebuking her for always forgetting how things work. Gradually, Virginia begins to understand that she is in a psychiatric hospital; but how long has she been here? Why can’t she remember anything before today? And what must she do in order to be released from this place, with its arbitrary and bewildering rules? Mary Jane Ward’s novel, of which this is a 75th anniversary edition, was inspired by her own experiences of institutionalisation, and played a major role in starting conversations about the treatment of mental illness in the USA. Poignant, compassionate, and often surprisingly amusing, it offers a frank picture of a world in which patients and staff often seem equally incomprehensible and irrational.

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Egisto (1643): Francesco Cavalli

★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera at The Cockpit Theatre, 4 June 2021)

In many ways, the plot of Egisto sounds like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four young lovers are forced to confront the fickleness of the human heart while, behind the scenes, supernatural forces use them as pawns in a divine rivalry. Here, though, the antagonists are not fairy royals but gods: Venus and Apollo; and Cupid, not Puck, is the meddler who both provokes and resolves the chaos. There the similarities end, for Egisto also includes pirates (tangentially), a descent into hell (brief) and a mad scene, which makes for an eccentric piece of early Baroque. First performed in 1643 it was Cavalli’s seventh opera and the second which he produced with his long-time collaborator, the librettist Giovanni Faustini (also responsible for Ormindo, Calisto and, at least in part, Elena). It hasn’t often been performed in modern times, and Hampstead Garden Opera have bravely chosen it to kick off their post-Covid programming, performing it at the Cockpit Theatre in North London until 13 June. A variety of captivating voices among the young cast made it an engrossing first foray out into live opera: my first since March 2020.

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Land of the Living (2018): Georgina Harding

★★★★½

With hand on heart, I can say that this is one of the most achingly beautiful, and also most heart-breaking, novels that I’ve read. Our protagonist is Charlie Ashe, a farmer turned British soldier in Burma (now Myanmar) in World War II. In one of two intertwining storylines, we see him wandering in the Burmese jungle after losing his patrol, dazed by its vastness and beauty, even as he reels from the slaughter he’s witnessed. Alongside this story, we skip ahead a year or two and see Charlie again, after his return home to England. He has married his sweetheart and started a new life with her on a Norfolk farm, and yet he still finds himself struggling to come to terms with the trauma of his wartime experiences. The Charlie who has come back from Burma is not the same man who went off to fight, but can he, and his wife Claire, manage to find peace in the aftermath of tragedy? These two strands are woven beautifully together, but the real star in this book is Harding’s writing – eloquent and elegant – which gracefully probes questions of trauma, loss and memory, inviting us to think about survivor’s guilt, the strain of bearing witness, and how those left at home can never truly comprehend.

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Bone China (2019): Laura Purcell

★★★

It is a freezing winter night, early in the 19th century. Hester Why arrives in Cornwall on the mail coach, a hunted woman travelling under an assumed name and tormented by memories of her recent life as a lady’s maid in London. She has seized upon a new position as a maid and nurse to the reclusive Miss Pinecroft at Morvoren House, which stands on a wild and lonely outcrop above the cave-riddled cliffs. Here she hopes to find peace, recover her equilibrium and restore her faith in herself, but she soon realises that Morvoren is haunted by its own ghosts and secrets. Half paralysed by strokes, Miss Pinecroft barely speaks and can only rarely be persuaded to leave the chill of her favoured room, the china cabinet. Her ward, the unfortunate Rosewyn, is still babied and dressed as a child despite being a fully-grown woman. And the household is dominated by the sinister Creeda, who sees the Little People – fairies – and their dangers everywhere. A story of reason and delusion, faith and science, this is a fantastically atmospheric novel, but one that also leaves some frustrating questions hanging in the balance.

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Spacecraft (2021): Timothy Morton

★½

As a fan of sci-fi, I had high hopes for Spacecraft, a new entry in the Bloomsbury Objects series. I felt that there was a huge amount of potential here: so much to unpack, not only in the way that classic spacecraft have made their way from the speculative fringe into mainstream culture, but also more broadly about the historical antecedents of science fiction. Spacecraft have grown out of other human desires and stories: after all, they’re the ultimate accomplishment of one of mankind’s most ancient desires: to fly. And we can trace a genealogy from the generation ships of science fiction back into antiquity, to Noah’s Ark. I was excited to learn about early ideas of what a spacecraft might be. What about the flying machine with rockets which launches Cyrano de Bergerac to the Moon in his 17th-century satirical novel The Other World? How do these fictional spacecraft compare to the real deal: the Space Shuttle or rockets? Does a spacecraft have to be manned? What about Arthur C. Clarke’s enigmatic Rama? Brimming with questions, I settled down and prepared to be transported to other worlds.

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Will (2016): Jeroen Olyslaegers

★★★★

For Proust, the key to memory was a madeleine: for the elderly Wilfried Wils, it’s a snowfall, which carpets the streets around his home in Antwerp. Walking through the city, he remembers how it was in wartime, and decides that it’s time to set down his story, addressing it to an estranged great-grandson. He hopes that this unknown reader will listen and, if not forgive him, then at least understand. The problem, Will knows, is that people like their protagonists to be heroes: the kind of men and women who place principles above their own safety, and protect those less fortunate than themselves. But that isn’t the story that Will has to tell. His is a tale of survival, of self-interest and self-preservation in a world where all certainties have been ripped away; and it isn’t just the tale of one man, but of a whole city. Olyslaegers’s disturbing novel is based around real events in wartime Antwerp, and inspired by the experiences of the author’s own family: his grandfather, who was a Nazi collaborator, and his aunt, the mistress of an SS officer. If it’s unsettling, that’s largely because it forces us to think very hard about how we ourselves would survive under occupation. Would we choose to be heroes, as we’d like to believe? Or would we, too, follow prevailing winds in this ‘life on the razor’s edge‘?

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The Crown (1765): Christoph Willibald Gluck

★★★★ 

(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 18 May 2021)

Bravo, Bampton Classical Opera: it takes a certain panache to make your post-Covid comeback with an opera called (in Italian) La corona! Commissioned for the Viennese court in 1765, this this rare piece by Gluck is a sparkling treat for the ears; despite being only an hour long in this concert version, it’s packed with musical variety, ranging from limpid pastoral to the martial grandeur of the chase. Based on the myth of Atalanta and Meleager, The Crown uses the Calydonian boar hunt as the backdrop for a delightful celebration of adolescent ambition and female courage. Performed here by an excellent cast, backed by the chamber orchestra CHROMA, it was the perfect way to ease back into Baroque after a year-long drought. I should say that this review is based on the excellent video broadcast of the production, as unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough off the mark to secure one of the limited seats – but the film is a treat in itself; it’s still available and comes highly recommended. I’ll link to it at the end of the post. So, gather up your arrows, steel your nerves, and come with me into the verdant forests of Calydon…

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The Dangerous Kingdom of Love (2021): Neil Blackmore

★★★½

In the English court of 1613, there are two paths to success: noble blood or a pretty face. Francis Bacon has neither, so he’s had to resort to bribing the King’s loathsome little favourite Robert Carr, in order to secure an appointment as Attorney General. This new job offers some protection from Bacon’s phalanx of noble enemies, who’d love nothing more than to see him fall from grace, but almost immediately he learns of a worrying development at court. Robert Carr is due to marry the daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, one of Bacon’s nemeses, and Bacon knows perfectly well that his days are numbered unless he can come up with a way to break their stranglehold over the King. Ideally, he’d dislodge the brattish Carr by finding a beautiful, amusing and irresistible boy to offer up as a new potential favourite for the King. When Bacon’s path happens to cross that of the ravishing George Villiers, he seizes the opportunity, without stopping to think of the challenges that lie ahead: the task of playing Pygmalion and the difficulties that might arise when his creation gains power of his own. Giving centre stage to one of the period’s most fascinating characters, Neil Blackmore’s novel of sexual ambition in Jacobean England achieves the tricky feat of being both historically convincing and enormously fun.

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High Heel (2019): Summer Brennan

★★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

What do you think of when you think of high heels? For me, there’s a divide between high heels ‘in the wild’ and my own experience. High heels in general are elegant: they’re worn by women who are smart, professional and probably wealthy enough to jump in a taxi rather than risk getting their stiletto wedged in a Tube station escalator. A woman of this type would probably not get her heel trapped in a grille on a staircase, and has to grimly hunker down, one shoe on, one shoe off, to winkle it out. (That was me.) Heels have a mythos of their own, provoking envy, longing and pride in otherwise quite reasonable women, and transforming their designers into household names; but why should this be? Exactly what is it that makes the high heel such an enduring object of obsession? The Bloomsbury Object Lessons series is always engaging, but Summer Brennan’s investigation of the heel is a particular favourite so far. Embracing Greek myth, fairy tales, history, fashion and biology, she sets out on a quest to understand exactly why this most uncomfortable of shoes has become the most ubiquitous. Fierce, feminist and fascinating.

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