The Wicked Cometh: Laura Carlin

★★★

In the dark streets of early 19th-century Holborn, people are disappearing. Men, women and children vanish on their way home from work or after a pint in the pub. As the smogs thicken in the narrow streets, orphaned Hester White studies the handbills pasted up on the dank walls, begging for news of lost loved ones. It’s a bleak time to be poor in London and, when Hester suffers an accident near Smithfield Market, and is swept off for recuperation in the house of a wealthy surgeon, she thinks that she has escaped the dark belly of the underworld once and for all. Little does she know that she is only being drawn deeper into danger. A tale of Gothic threat and forbidden love, this novel reads like a cross between Sarah Waters and Grand Guignol.

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An Odyssey: Daniel Mendelsohn

★★★★★

A Father, a Son and an Epic

In January 2011, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn began to teach an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College in New York. It would be one of the most unusual experiences of his career, for one of his students was his 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn. The tale of the term that followed is distilled into this extraordinary book, part memoir and part literary criticism. An insightful and passionate teacher, Mendelsohn conveys his enthusiasm for Homer’s epic; but he is also a sensitive chronicler of the human soul, and his story spirals out from the seminar to encompass the history of his complex relationship with his prickly, combative father. Written with compassion, it is both intellectually and emotionally brilliant – not to mention hugely moving.

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The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night: Jen Campbell

★★★½

Some of you might already be familiar with Jen Campbell, the compiler of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Although I haven’t yet read these compendiums of the odd, I’ve seen snippets here and there and they’ve made me laugh out loud. So I was curious to see how Campbell’s talents would translate to the short story medium. The answer is: extremely well; although these unsettling stories aren’t at all what one would expect from this tongue-in-cheek observer of human nature. Or… on the other hand… perhaps they are, for they reach deep inside us to the darker corners of the psyche, and their unifying feature is that these miniature worlds seem so straightforward, so simple, until you look between the lines and realise that something, subtly, is out of kilter.

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The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk: Daniel Jamieson

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

★★★★½

(Kneehigh Theatre at Wilton’s Music Hall, 18 January 2018)

On 6 July 1915, a few weeks before their wedding, Bella Rosenfeld arrived at Marc Chagall’s house in Vitebsk, carrying a bouquet of flowers wrapped in several colourful shawls. It was his birthday – not a day he’d ever particularly celebrated – but she was determined to make it special, not least because her wealthy family had been grumbling about the match between a master jeweller’s daughter and a penniless artist. This moment – a gesture of love and acceptance; an offering – would resonate throughout both their lives and it forms one of the key scenes in Daniel Jamieson’s colourful, playful, poignant, meltingly romantic play, which is currently on tour. J and I saw it in the faded glory of Wilton’s, where it seems to fit perfectly: a magical glimpse of a lost age, a two-man show dominated by splendid performances and simplicity.

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Sparks: David Quantick

★★★

Paul Sparks, commonly known even to his nearest and dearest as Sparks, is a waster. An overgrown man-child, he’s a lazy aficionado of videos, junk food and the pub closest to his ‘office’, where his job involves (infrequently) replicating 1970s t-shirts. It’s a sorry state of affairs, but it has always suited Sparks and it’s only when his girlfriend Alison dumps him in exasperation that Sparks realises he could have handled things a bit better. When he stumbles across a very esoteric website, which suggests the possibility of alternate universes, Sparks comes to a decision. He might have lost Alison in this world, but if there really are parallel worlds out there, he’s determined to search through them until he’s found the one, perfect world, in which he can win her back forever.

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Beware of Pity: Stefan Zweig

★★★★

When I was packing for my Vienna trip last week, one very important question was on my mind. What should I take to read? I always enjoy reading appropriate fiction on my travels, but it turned out that my collection of Austrian stories was rather limited. By stretching the rules, I ended up choosing this: the only full-length novel by Stefan Zweig, the wonderful essayist, biographer and short-story writer who was born in Vienna. Beware of Pity was first published in 1939 and looks back to the eve of another war, in 1914 on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a simple story, about an act of kindness that goes horribly wrong – and Zweig’s percipient understanding of human nature means that it resonates strongly even today.

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Rubens: The Power of Transformation

Rubens: The Fur

(Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, until 21 January 2018)

My apologies for the recent silence. It’s been a rather frantic weekend and I’m only just getting to the point where I can think again. I was also off on a business trip last week in Vienna, which was (as ever) an utter joy. I fetched up at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last Tuesday afternoon, planning to have an indulgent hot chocolate in the wonderful café, and then to potter in the Italian galleries; but my visit was supplemented by this very impressive exhibition about Rubens.

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An Accomplished Woman: Jude Morgan

★★★★

While at home over Christmas, I spotted this novel on one of my mother’s bookshelves and promptly snaffled it without her knowledge (hi Mum!). Jude Morgan has drifted in and out of my awareness these last few years, but it wasn’t until I settled down with An Accomplished Woman that I realised he’s rather brilliant at Regency comedies of manners in a Georgette Heyer style. Indeed, I decided I was going to thoroughly enjoy it based on the final lines of the very first chapter. The rest of the book channels Heyer with aplomb, boasting a plot that has certain echoes of her novels, but Morgan infuses it all with a modern consciousness that gives it a warmly witty spark, and stuffs it so full of bon mots that I was kept busy scribbling them all down.

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The Thief: Megan Whalen Turner

★★★

The Queen’s Thief: Book I

By popular demand (usually from Melita), I’ve finally got round to Megan Whalen Turner! I understand from Kerstin that the Queen’s Thief books are loved by Dunnetteers, among many other readers, for their twisting plots and intrigue, and so I’d really been looking forward to them. At the end of this first novel, however, I can’t help wondering when that promised court intrigue is going to get underway. The Thief is an enjoyable young-adult quest novel, throwing together the traditional bunch of ill-assorted companions in search of an ancient relic, but I don’t feel it’s hugely out of the ordinary. I’m not about to give up, though, and am sure things will warm up later in the series.

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