Downfall of the Gods: K.J. Parker

★★★★

When I was in Oxford last weekend (in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles, to be precise, which is extremely good; you must go), I found something remarkable: a K.J. Parker novella that I’d never even heard of before! Unable to believe my luck, I snaffled it and read it all in one go the following day. It was exactly what I needed: undemanding but witty, irreverent and smart in all the right ways. While, like most of Parker’s fiction, Downfall of the Gods has a Grecian tinge, it looks further back in time, beyond the days of the Byzantine-inspired empires in his Engineer and Two of Swords trilogies, to an older time, when men still have to worry about annoying the gods – and the gods themselves can’t always be trusted.

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Becky Chambers

★★★★

Wayfarers: Book I

Despite enjoying the recent reboot of the Star Trek series, I’ve never been much of a girl for spaceship-based sci-fi. However, I’ve been seeing this book pretty much everywhere for the last three years, and my powers of resistance only go so far. And what a pleasure it was to finally read it! Equal parts space opera and character piece, it takes us onto the tunnelling ship Wayfarer – scruffy, banged together, and home to a hugely lovable crew. This is more a story about friendship, compassion, tolerance and cooperation than it is about techno-jargon or deep-space exploration: at its heart is a group of people, of various species, who have lived and worked together long enough that they have become a kind of endearingly dysfunctional family. And, as the novel opens, they have a new addition to their numbers: Rosemary Harper, freshly-trained clerk and space newbie, who is willing to go to the other end of the galaxy to escape her past.

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Mythago Wood: Robert Holdstock

★★★★★

Mythago Wood: Book I

Mythago Wood was first recommended to me five years ago, but it was only last weekend that I saw a copy in my local library and pounced. I hadn’t been at all sure whether I would like it – indeed, I hadn’t been at all sure what it was about – but reading it has been a truly remarkable experience. I suppose the book does fall under the fantasy banner, but it’s actually about myths and legends, the collective unconscious, and what Peter Ackroyd calls in his book Albion ‘the English imagination’. And it’s about woods: those deep, old English woodlands which can give you a thrill of unease when walking through them simply due to their antiquity. What might be hiding in the depths of such primeval forests? Playing with notions of relativity, time and space, Holdstock creates a world of such fascinating allure that I was captivated from the very first page. I may have taken half a decade to get round to this recommendation, but by heaven it was worth the wait.

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Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

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Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting young singers.

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How To Stop Time: Matt Haig

★★

So that’s the end of the Summer Without Men 2018. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself: I’ve read 27 books over the two months of the challenge, which is pretty respectable; even if I didn’t quite manage to embrace the broad spectrum of subjects that I’d hoped. But those other books are still there, waiting, and will be read in due course. Having a reason to focus on the female authors in my library made me appreciate their scope and range and wit so much more, and I think I might make this an annual thing. There’s no danger of running out of books: at my present count, I have 755 books by women on my to-read list (across all genres, both digital and hard-copy – yes, that figure rather scared me as well), so I could actually do Three Years Without Men and still have books to spare. But I can’t deny I’m looking forward to letting the men in again – as long as they behave themselves. I’ve had books by Ben Kane and Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris and all sorts of people just sitting there, tempting me for the last two months, so we might have a bit of a rush on Romans and Vikings and general muscly-warlike-stuff until the novelty wears off again. But we’re easing ourselves in gently for the first book, with a typically sentimental, introspective novel by Matt Haig.

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The Western Wind: Samantha Harvey

★★★

It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.

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The Last Children of Tokyo: Yoko Tawada

★★½

I keep reading modern Japanese fiction in the hope that, one day, it will suddenly all make sense; but it hasn’t happened yet. This slim little book is, for the most part, a gentle and achingly tragic tale of a near future that feels all too plausible. Environmental and nuclear catastrophe has led to political isolationism, mass extinction and the reversal of the natural order: the old remain spry and sprightly into extreme old age, while the children suffer from genetic mutations and endemic sickness. We watch an old man struggling to care for his great-grandson, and trying to come to terms with the guilt of an entire generation. It all flows along terribly well until the last pages, when a sudden and utterly unnecessary narrative shift leaves you floundering at the final curtain.

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Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

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Tamburlaine: Christopher Marlowe (1587)

tamburlaine_production_photographs__2018_2018_photo_by_ellie_kurttz__c__rsc_258815-1.tmb-img-1824 (2)

★★★★

(Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25 August 2018)

Something is brewing in the Scythian steppes. As the power of once-mighty Persia begins to wane under the rule of foolish Mycetes, rumours reach the court of a new leader rising in the north: a former shepherd, who has gathered a band of thugs and thieves and believes he is destined to rule the world. His name is Tamburlaine. Christopher Marlowe’s play is rarely performed, which is a pity because it has powerful resonance in the modern world. The RSC’s production, directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, was first staged in New York in 2014 and boils down Parts 1 and 2 into a single three-and-a-half-hour behemoth of death and ambition. (Imagine seven seasons of Game of Thrones condensed into 180 minutes and you have some idea of the amount of blood involved.) These cuts emphasise Tamburlaine’s dizzying rise to power, and the whole play is anchored by a magnificently charismatic performance by Jude Owusu.

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