The Garrick Year: Margaret Drabble

★★★½

Before I focus on the novel, I have to flag the wonderful shop in which I bought it: the Eagle Bookshop in Bedford, one of the largest and most welcoming second-hand bookshops I’ve visited in quite some time. Having recently moved to bigger premises, it’s thriving, with creative writing sessions, poetry readings and other literary events. If you live in or near Bedford, or find yourself in town with half an hour spare, I thoroughly recommend it. I came away with a modest stash, which allowed me to tread the fine line between supporting physical bookshops (on one hand) and (on the other) respecting the fact I have no book space left in my flat. It required great self-control. The first to catch my eye was this slim volume: Margaret Drabble’s second novel, written in 1964 when she was only twenty-five. Following a group of London actors as they decamp to Hereford for an arts festival, it’s a sharp and merciless tale of boredom, pretension and infidelity, notable for its acerbic and entitled narrator.

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Thirteen Guests: J. Jefferson Farjeon

★★★

John Foss, a young man in a state of distraction, gets his foot caught while leaving the train at the country station of Flensham. Badly injured, he providentially finds himself sharing a platform with the beautiful Mrs Leveridge, who is on her way to a house party at the nearby Bragley Court. She takes John along with her, so that he can receive the attention of a doctor and rest in comfort, correctly judging that their host Lord Aveling won’t mind stretching his hospitality to another guest. But, as John is warmly greeted and installed on a couch, he realises that his presence means there will be thirteen guests at this weekend’s party. And, as the other guests trickle in, John finds himself watching to see who will be the thirteenth to pass through the doorway. He swiftly sees that all is not well at Bragley. Secrets and dislike ripple beneath the polite surface and there are strange alliances and tensions between unexpected groups of guests. And he is right to be uneasy, for by the end of the weekend three people will be dead…

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Susanna: George Frideric Handel (1749)

Handel: Susanna

★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 5 March 2019)

The Biblical story of Susanna is very timely. A beautiful woman in a happy marriage is targeted by two powerful elders in her community while her husband is away. When she rejects their sexual advances, they revenge themselves by publicly accusing her of adultery with a mysterious third person, destroying her reputation and bringing shame upon her family. She is condemned to death but, in the nick of time, is rescued by the youthful prophet Daniel, who interrogates the elders, exposing inconsistencies in their stories. Susanna is vindicated and the two elders condemned to death in her place. At the risk of sounding frivolous, this is the #MeToo oratorio, and any director handling the story in the present climate will be forcibly aware of the parallels. This new production from the Royal Opera House, which features singers from the Jette Parker Young Artists programme, is a little too eager to demonstrate its social conscience. It tackles not only the sexual exploitation of women (as expected) but also (less logically) the climate crisis. The result is weighed down by concept, which – at least on the first night – risked distracting attention from the grace and variety of Handel’s music.

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Will Storr vs. the Supernatural: Will Storr

★★★

One Man’s Search for the Truth about Ghosts

What’s your take on ghosts? Believer, undecided or sceptic? I lean towards the sceptic point of view, although I know very sensible people who believe they’ve seen ghosts. I don’t discount the possibility of there being some kind of scientific explanation, like those suggested at one point in this book, but in the cold light of day I can’t admit to ever having seen anything abnormal myself. That’s despite the fact I am the most over-imaginative, jumpiest and wimpiest of creatures – I spent much of Stranger Things Season 3 hiding behind a cushion – and that I spent a large part of my teenage years hanging around in an ancient graveyard after dark (I was a bell-ringer; practise nights were obligatory). But I don’t have all the answers and that’s why I bought this book when it was on offer. It does indeed prove to be an intriguing journey, which explores various aspects of the paranormal and – more fascinating still – brings you into the company of (forgive me) some very odd people and profoundly weird events. Whether you’re convert or cynic, you might end up leaving the light on…

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Conversations with Friends: Sally Rooney

★★★★

Sally Rooney’s debut novel was a phenomenon. It got people talking, tapping into the zeitgeist in a way that catapulted it onto bestseller tables and lists. Now it’s on the verge of being turned into a BBC series. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid reading it until now; not a conscious choice, I hasten to add, but simply the accident of having too many books and not enough time. It was worth the wait, though I must confess that my primary emotion on finishing it was relief that I am no longer of Frances’s and Bobbi’s generation. How exhausting it all seems in retrospect: the relentless posturing; the confusion of sarcasm with chic; the vulnerability of not yet knowing who you are; and the conviction that identity can only be discovered by taking on the world alone, anew, afresh. And how perfectly Rooney writes about that awkward age of self-definition, following two robustly vivid protagonists through a heady, sun-drenched summer. A delightful, very modern comedy of manners; but comedy in its darkest, most ironic hue.

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Bats in the Belfry: E.C.R. Lorac

★★★½

On a cold March evening, a group of friends amuse themselves with a morbid intellectual game. They compete to come up with the best way to dispose of an unwanted corpse. This all seems like a cheerfully shocking, daring kind of game in a chic drawing room near Regent’s Park, but within a few days it all starts to feel horribly prophetic. First, one of the party goes missing. Then a gruesome discovery raises the likelihood of murder, and the remaining members of the group find themselves under the unwelcome scrutiny of Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Under the bright beam of his eye, fissures and rivalries emerge, and he swiftly realises that there’s more to this particular case than meets the eye. A classic old-school murder mystery, first published in 1937, this is jolly engaging stuff with a powerful sense of place. London, from Regent’s Park to Notting Hill and the Strand, is just as central a character as any of our suspects. But now to the key question. Is Bruce Attleton really dead? And, if so, who killed him? And why?

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Liar’s Candle: August Thomas

★★½

I said just a few days ago that thrillers aren’t really my comfort zone. So you can imagine I was rather amused when, after discussing The Binding, my book club decided to go for something completely different: this fast-paced CIA thriller set in Turkey. It’s a breathless modern tale of terrorism, murky ambitions, double-dealing and innocence maligned, and it’s certainly very readable: I got through it in a couple of days. But it is weakened considerably by its complete implausibility, which I shall detail with relish in just a moment. Let’s set the scene. Naive US intern Penny Kessler has been working at the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, for just three weeks when she wakes up in the Ankara state hospital with a piercing headache and vague memories of an explosion. She is one of the few survivors of a terrorist bomb that detonated at the American Embassy’s Fourth of July party, killing swathes of people. Penny has also become the poster girl for the tragedy, thanks to a photo of her, dazed and blood-drenched, pulling an American flag from the rubble. Suddenly everyone is very interested in her. But are they really just interested in her welfare? Or is there something more sinister going on? Before Penny knows it, she’s on the run – and there’s no one she can trust.

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The Remedy: Michelle Lovric

★★★★

Venetian convents are famous above all things for their laxity, with sweets and cakes; visitors; fine fashions; and beautiful music. But the headstrong young woman we meet at the start of The Remedy isn’t interested in the things that come in to the convent, so much as in how to get out. She has been confined within the walls of S. Zaccaria by her noble parents, quite unfairly of course, after allegedly bringing shame on the family. Since good behaviour hasn’t made an ounce of difference to her prospects, bad behaviour might just be her ticket back out into the world. After all, everyone knows that discerning gentlemen can make donations to certain convents in exchange for the company of nuns. Such arrangements take place at S. Zaccaria and our narrator is confident that her well-bred beauty will find her a lover who’ll whisk her away. Alas! When her plans are betrayed, leaving her ruined and furious, our narrator’s prospects seem darker than ever. But then the state’s spymasters make her an offer she can’t refuse: to have her crimes wiped clean in return for service as one of their agents. A pitch-perfect tale of double-dealing, murder, sex, and opera in 18th-century Venice and London, written in sumptuous prose, this deeply satisfying period romp never quite lets you forget the grit under its fingernails.

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The Family Tooth: Ellis Avery

In this trio of very short but moving memoirs, the American author Ellis Avery revisits three key moments in her life. Each involves an uncomfortably close encounter with mortality, and a form of grieving, whether that’s for a person she once knew and loved, or a part of her life that is over. The quirky title is taken from the tooth, mounted as a pendant, that Avery finds among her late mother’s jewellery in the first part of this memoir-sequence. It becomes a symbol of the strange remnants that we leave behind us, a mere fragment of the life its unknown owner once lived. The two later memoirs show us Avery dealing with her own mortality, as she confronts a cancer diagnosis. When I first read the three bite-sized books, almost exactly a year ago on 20 February 2019, I found them engaging, pragmatic and compassionate explorations of the way we deal with grief. Little did I realise at the time that Avery had died only five days before I read them. Having read them again, knowing that, her courage and honesty – coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality – is all the more striking.

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The Company: K.J. Parker

★★★½

Gosh, it’s been far too long since I’ve read a K.J. Parker novel. How I’ve missed him. Reading his books can feel slightly like reading Georgette Heyer; not, I hasten to add, because they’re Regency romances (heaven forfend!), but because his stories are all rather similar. It doesn’t matter, though, because you know you’re getting into something well-crafted and entertaining, in supremely competent hands. In The Company, Parker introduces us to the former members of A Company’s line-breaker division: crack troops, sent ahead of the infantry to punch a route through the enemy’s front line of pikemen. The line-breakers became legendary: a band of men from the minor town of Faralia, who weren’t expected to last past the first battle, but who worked together to become – apparently – indestructible. Once, they were heroes. But now the war is over and most of them have moved on, taking up the threads of their old lives. When their charismatic leader Kunessin comes home with money in his pocket and a crazy dream on his mind, the rest of the company must decide whether to follow him once again. After all, if they can trust anyone in the world, they can trust each other. Right?

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