There Are Things I Know: Karen B. Golightly

★★★½

Time for another novella from the Fairlight Moderns series, this time the tale of a little boy named Pepper. He’s eight years old, used to live with his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, and knows that he doesn’t see the world in quite the same way as other people. He dislikes loud noises, finds it difficult to read people’s emotions but finds numbers very easy to tackle: indeed, counting often keeps him calm when the chaos of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Now Pepper lives with Uncle Dan in Arkansas, but he’s having trouble adapting. In fact, he’s beginning to suspect that Uncle Dan isn’t really his uncle at all. But how can one lost little boy get hold of his mother when the only phone number he knows is missing its crucial three-digit area code?

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Secret Passages in a Hillside Town: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

★★★

Olli Suominen, an absent-minded publisher, lives in Jyväskylä in Central Finland, where he spends his days trying to find new authors for his firm, serving on the parish council, and losing umbrellas. His marriage is losing its sparkle and, when an old flame erupts onto the Finnish literary scene with a compelling new self-help guide, Olli finds himself being dragged back into memories of childhood summers, when he was a member of a band of children based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. But the blissful adventure of those summers hides darker memories of torment, transformation and loss, all mixed up with the secret passages that run below this unassuming hill town. I sometimes got the feeling that Jääskeläinen was trying to do too much at once, but it’s certainly a unique novel with its own peculiar flavour.

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Nutshell: Ian McEwan

★★★★

Imagine that you’re privy to a murder plot: a fiendish, heinous plan to kill your father. Imagine that one of the conspirators is your own mother. Even worse, her accomplice is your uncle, your father’s own brother, who has slipped happily between the prematurely-vacated bed-sheets. And imagine, in this horrific scenario, that there’s absolutely nothing you can do but listen as the scheme unfolds along its pernicious course. That’s the fate of our narrator in this brilliant, playful novel, who is rendered powerless by virtue of being a nine-month-old foetus within his mother’s womb. A cross between Hamlet and Look Who’s Talking really shouldn’t work, but this does, triumphantly: it’s one of the most sumptuously-written books I’ve read in ages.

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Roman Blood: Steven Saylor

★★★½

Roma Sub Rosa: Book I

Time to meet another pioneering Roman detective, this one operating some decades earlier than Lindsey Davis’s engaging Falco. It’s 80 BC when we first encounter Gordianus, called the Finder, a man known in a certain section of society for his ability to find not only things but truth. Gordianus has previously worked with some of Rome’s leading advocates, but he’s always been fully conscious of his status as persona non grata in polite circles. This is usually reinforced by the status of the go-betweens sent to deal with him. And this is why he’s surprised when a very well-bred young slave arrives at the door of his sprawling, shabby old house one morning, offering him work. The slave’s name is Tiro. And the man who wants Gordianus’ help is Tiro’s master, a fresh young advocate just starting out on his career, named Cicero.

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Closing a Chapter

Friedrich: Woman Before the Rising Sun

I’ve always been very clear about the purpose of this blog. It isn’t a confessional exercise and I’m too English to feel comfortable baring my soul in public. But I’ve decided that I need to write this post for my own well-being and sense of closure. Some of you may remember a short-lived, rather anguished post back in early May, begging for time to deal with a personal crisis. So many of you rallied to me in that moment, and yet I never explained what had happened. I wasn’t going to. But I’ve come to realise that I need to do this, as a way to thank you for your incredible support and, more importantly, to close this chapter in my own mind. I was going to save it for the blog’s 7th birthday post in late July, but I’ve decided that that’s a joyful occasion and this doesn’t belong there. Nor do I want this still to be dominating my thoughts in late July. I want to move on.

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Mrs Osmond: John Banville

★★★★

I’m still trying to get my head around John Banville as a writer. The first novel of his that I read was The Sea, which I remember being lyrical and dreamy; then I turned to Dr Copernicus, which I found frustratingly dense. This new historical novel shares elements of both those other books, blending a poignant sense of loss with high style; but it also has other strong influences. Banville isn’t really writing as himself here. As I read more, I came to realise that Mrs Osmond is actually an ambitious tribute, elevated fan-fiction if you like, in which Banville imagines how Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady might have continued. The titular Mrs Osmond is Isabel, née Archer, and we first meet her as she returns to London in what might fairly be called the darkest period of her life.

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Agrippina: George Frideric Handel (1709)

Handel: Agrippina

★★★★

(Grange Festival, Hampshire, 8 June 2018)

Last weekend, on a balmy Hampshire afternoon, H and I donned our cocktail dresses and set off for the first of our two country-house operas this summer. It was time for the Grange Festival near Winchester (not to be confused with Grange Park Opera in West Horsley in Kent, who split from the Grange Festival two years ago in less than amicable circumstances). The Grange Festival have dusted themselves off, and are kicking off their second summer season in stunning style with Handel’s Agrippina. Full of maternal ambition, political intrigue and lustful shenanigans, this opera follows the Roman matriarch as she schemes to manoeuvre her son Nero onto the imperial throne. A dose of plotting makes me a very happy girl, but I was rendered even happier by the quality of the cast, headed by the redoubtable Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina herself. Truly, an evening fit for an emperor.

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Inside the Bone Box: Anthony Ferner

★★★★

In this day and age, with independent bookshops and small publishers closing in swathes, it’s a joy to hear of a newly-founded enterprise: Fairlight Books in Oxford. At one year old, they’re just about to release a series of five novellas in their Fairlight Moderns series and I was delighted to have a sneak peek. I decided to start with Inside the Bone Box, because it focused on a doctor and that appealed in the wake of Adam Kay’s diaries. It’s the story of consultant neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton, whose burgeoning obesity has already threatened his marriage and now raises very serious questions about his professional capabilities. Meanwhile his wife, Alyson, has her own demons to fight. It soon becomes clear that the ‘bone box’ of the title isn’t just the skull, within which the brain-self resides, but also the prisons we build for ourselves, trapping ourselves within excess flesh or addictions.

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1610: A Sundial in a Grave: Mary Gentle

★★★½

I have a mixed relationship with the author Mary Gentle, having now read two of her books: Ilario, long before I started this blog, and Black Opera some years ago. 1610 has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and, in the course of a warm, sunny weekend, I decided to give it a go. A sexual assault in the first few chapters gave me pause, but I pressed on regardless and soon found myself in the midst of a very enjoyable swashbuckler, populated with spies, rogues, kings, mathematicians and cross-dressing swordsmen – and taking in the France of Marie de’ Medici, the England of James I and, unexpectedly, Japan in the years before the Sukoku Edict closed its borders. I should stress that this isn’t a fantasy, but a rollicking historical adventure with a few hints of the mystical: best described, perhaps, as The Three Musketeers with added esoterica.

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This Is Going To Hurt: Adam Kay

★★★★

Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

In August 2004, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, Adam Kay sets off for his first day as a hospital doctor. Six years later, exhausted and traumatised, he leaves the profession. In-between, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, he delivers over a thousand babies, saves lives, gets soaked in other people’s blood, and removes odd objects from a variety of orifices. This collection of diary entries take us through his career and, as you might imagine, they’re not for the squeamish. They made me wince, and very often I laughed out loud; but they also made me sad. Kay gives a sobering picture of the British National Health Service at a time when its funding is being stealthily shaved away by the government, and the Health Secretary seems to have precious little idea of what doctors are actually doing. These diaries show us what it’s like on ground zero, and it’s not a pretty sight. With humour, sarcasm and compassion, Kay demonstrates how desperately stretched our doctors are. Vital reading, and painfully timely.

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