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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Cinderella: Matthew Bourne

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella★★★★

(Sadler’s Wells, London, until 27 January 2018)

My heart broke a little on Friday afternoon. I realised that Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella had returned to Sadler’s Wells this winter and was now completely sold out until the end of its run. I’d missed its last run too and had been similarly upset then, but good fortune came to my rescue. By chance, it had been broadcast on BBC2 over Christmas (I’d missed that too) and was still available on iPlayer. On Saturday afternoon, as the sullen wind rattled the sash windows, I curled up with a cup of tea and a blanket and sank happily into this reimagined fairy tale, set in the depths of the London Blitz. It’s classic Bourne, half ballet and half drama, with a dark substrata to its glittering fantasy.

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The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz: Russell Hoban

★★★

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book. Surely it wasn’t just because there was a lion on the cover? I’d never heard of Russell Hoban, and knew nothing about the story; and yet here it is, on my shelf. It has turned out to be a thought-provoking, if somewhat mystifying read: the first half full of poignant comments on belonging, self-direction and the relationship between fathers and sons; the second half verging on hallucinogenic self-indulgence. Realising that it was first published in 1973, I wondered if parts might have made more sense if I’d been smoking something not entirely legal. And yet there’s one irresistible aspect: it’s inspired by the magnificent Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum.

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Dystopian Short Stories from Tor.com

Tor.com

Here is the next batch of short stories from Tor.com. I’ve collected together five stories which deal with near futures in which the world has changed: often clearly for the worse, but sometimes for the better with a poignant kick. Here we find people relieving others of pain or emotion; a virus that traps you in a fatal dream of happiness; and the cruelty of the fashion industry taken to extremes. And a reminder, should you need it, that dystopias don’t always need to be outside our own heads…

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Blonde: Joyce Carol Oates

★★★★★

You may think I’m getting soft, seeing the second five-star rating in four days, but trust me on this. I’ve been reading this book since November and, at almost a thousand pages, it is a dazzling modern classic: a sprawling, daring, combative act of imagination. First published in 2000, it gains an even more fervent urgency when read in the light of last year’s snowballing Hollywood scandals. Hovering between fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of the most iconic woman of the 20th century – so recognisable that you only need a wisp of platinum-blonde hair and the feathered end of a dark eyebrow to put a name to the face on the cover. Yet this is not a biography but a creative reconstruction of the life and times of the girl who started life as Norma Jeane Baker and ended up crushed beneath the glittering celebrity of her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.

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L’Incoronazione di Dario: Antonio Vivaldi (1717)

Dario 20

★★★★

(Teatro Regio Torino, directed by Ottavio Dantone, 2017)

My New Year’s Day treat was this opera, staged at the Teatro Regio in Turin earlier this year and now released on DVD. I already knew the CD recording, conducted by Dantone with a slightly different cast, but I always find it difficult to truly appreciate an opera until I’ve seen it staged. The adventurous Dehggial and Thả Diều actually went to Turin to see it in the flesh, and their posts whetted my appetite; not that it needed much whetting. How could I resist an opera about Darius I, which neatly forms the third instalment of a Baroque Persian trilogy, alongside Xerxes and Artaserse? Served up with intrigue, romance and a very, very silly princess, this proved to be a deft comedy, well worth the wait.

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