Rules of Civility: Amor Towles

★★★★½

I’ve just returned from a business trip to New York, during which I had the perfect reading material: Amor Towles’s chic but shrewd Rules of Civility. While it shares the ineffable style of Gentleman in Moscow, it has a different spirit: harder, wiser and more cynical. It conjures up Manhattan in the late 1930s: a city of walk-ups and steel fire-escapes; jazz quartets in smoky underground bars; and glittering parties in riverside mansions. And, at the book’s heart, are two young, scrappy and hungry heroines: Katey Kontent and Eve Ross. Both, in their own way, are self-fashioned and, as they wait on the brink of 1938, they can almost taste the potential in the air. Right now they might be eking out their last dollars in a downtown bar but, one day, New York is going to spill its gorgeous bounty right into their silken laps. It’s just a matter of finding the lever to get things moving. And, by happy chance, the catalyst is about to walk into both their lives… Continue reading

The Crow Garden: Alison Littlewood

★★★

In 1856, the young doctor Nathaniel Kerner makes his way north to Crakethorne Manor in Yorkshire: his first placement as an alienist or mad-doctor. He hopes to find an asylum full of progressive ideas and enlightened leadership, but it soon transpires that the enlightened spa treatments and extensive gardens described in the brochures are fictions. Instead Crakethorne is governed by the unstable Dr Chettle, who eschews modern notions of treatment in favour of the questionable science of phrenology. His new home isn’t all that Nathaniel would have wished. And yet there is one aspect which captures his imagination: Victoria Adelina Harleston, his beguiling patient.

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Hotel Silence: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

★★★½

Jónas has decided to kill himself. He’s divorced, his ex-wife has revealed that his beloved daughter is actually the child of another man, and his mother is swiftly sinking into senility. Nothing in his life has meaning any more. Even his chats with his neighbour Svanur only confirm his sense of middle-aged man superfluity. And so he decides it’s time to put an end to it all. How and when, of course, are another question. Jónas decides that, to avoid his daughter finding his body, he will have to kill himself abroad and so he decides to seek out the most dangerous place in the world. And so he arrives at the Hotel Silence, in a grim postwar town, where he will discover – much to his surprise – that, with a little effort, many things that are broken can in fact be mended.

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The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

★★★½

Night’s Masque: Book I

Larry Rostant’s Renaissance cover art has once again persuaded me to take a punt on a novel: a compelling blend of fantasy and gritty historical fiction, populated by players, spies, noblemen, and swordsmen who are down on their luck. This is London, in the fading days of Elizabeth I’s reign, but not as you know it. The queen tarries at Nonsuch, mourning her late husband Robert Dudley, while the reins of power are in the hands of her elder son Prince Robert. The capital seethes not only with religious strife, but also racial tension, for the discovery of the New World has brought Europe into contact with the skraylings: human-like and yet not human; great craftsmen, traders and warriors. And the imminent arrival of the first skrayling ambassador to the Court of St James may well be the spark that ignites the blaze. Imagine Shakespeare in Love seasoned with grit, intrigue and more than a hint of otherworldly magic.

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Beginning: David Eldridge

Beginning

★★★★½

(National Theatre at the Ambassador’s Theatre, 30 January 2018)

When I go to the theatre, more often than not I see something classical: a play where the characters speak poetry rather than prose, usually in iambic pentameter. There is a clear division between the real world and the fictional world on stage, no matter how good the actors are. Not so here. For my birthday, J nudged me out of my comfort zone by taking me to David Eldridge’s play, which has already enjoyed great critical success at the National Theatre, and made its West End transfer to the Ambassador’s Theatre in mid-January. Wow. This wasn’t theatre: this was life, flayed and placed under the microscope. With no interval and only two actors, it’s probing, insightful and frequently excruciating: a merciless, yet strangely tender exposé of modern romance.

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Orlando: George Frideric Handel (1733)

Ricci: Angelica and Medoro

★★★½

(La Nuova Musica with David Bates at St John’s Smith Square, 1 February 2018)

I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

★★★★

A man wakes up in the middle of a wood, with a single name on his lips: “Anna”. That’s all he has. His mind and memories are blank. Who is Anna? What is she to him? Who is he? He has no idea. When he sees a screaming woman running through the wood, followed by a man in a dark coat, and hears a shot shortly afterwards, he knows he has just witnessed a murder. But when, terrified, he stumbles out of the woods and into the grounds of a crumbling country house, he discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. For this novel is in a genre all of its own: a ferociously creative, time-travelling, body-hopping murder mystery, which reads like a cross between Memento, Inception and Groundhog Day, written by Agatha Christie.

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The Sky Over Lima: Juan Gómez Bárcena

★★★★

It’s 1904 and José and Carlos, two wealthy young men, are playing at being poets. They loiter in a tumbledown garret, savouring the romance of pretended poverty, and share their love for their favourite writer: the visionary Spanish wordsmith Juan Ramón Jiménez. His newest book hasn’t yet made its way across the seas to Peru, but the boys are desperate to read it. Maybe they could write to him and ask for a copy? And yet… and yet… They know that the great man won’t be moved by the plight of two impressionable students, so they formulate a cunning plan. Might he feel obliged to answer if they adopt another persona – if, for example, they pretend to be a beautiful young woman?

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Caligula: Simon Turney

★★★

The Damned Emperors: Book I

Simon Turney (usually billed as S.J.A. Turney) has built up quite a following with his e-books set in the Roman army, especially the Marius’ Mules series. They’ve been at the edge of my consciousness for a while, so I welcomed the chance to have a taster of Turney’s writing via this new novel. It’s the first in a series which will focus on the deliciously colourful emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In tackling Caligula, however, Turney takes the same approach that Margaret George did with Nero, attempting to cut through the accretions of centuries of propaganda and legend, to reveal the man beneath. It’s a noble attempt, but not without its problems, as the Julio-Claudians are always at their most interesting when they’re barking mad.

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Koh-i-Noor: William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

★★★½

Back at the beginning of August, I used my summer holidays to play ‘tourist’ in London. My first stop was the Tower of London and, among the ravens, armour and tales of bloody executions, I popped in to see the Crown Jewels. At that point I was already aware of this new history of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and wanted to see it for myself. I discovered, as many have before me, that its legend casts a far larger shadow than its reality. Indeed, it looks almost modest alongside the Cullinan I Diamond that sits atop the monarch’s sceptre, or the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown. So what was it about this rather unassuming diamond that captured the imagination of generations? With Dalrymple and Anand as my guides, I embarked on an engaging tale of blood, war, ambition, extravagance and conquest.

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