The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: John Boyne

★★★★

Oh good heavens. As you know, I’ve wanted to read more John Boyne and, when looking for something short to read between longer books, I spotted this. ‘Yes,’ I said to myself, ‘I know what it’s about. It won’t be fun, I know that. But everyone says how important it is. And besides. It’s a children’s book. It can’t be that bad.’ A day later, I was staring in disbelief at the final page, wondering how on earth I could ever explain this book to my non-existent children and feeling as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

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The New Mrs Clifton: Elizabeth Buchan

★★★★

In 1974 a young couple move into a house beside Clapham Common in London and begin the long task of doing it up. Some months into their refurbishment, when working in the garden, they make a shocking discovery: the skeleton of a woman in her late twenties, who has been murdered with a blow to the back of the head. She died some time between 1945 and 1947. But who is she? Rewind thirty years to autumn 1945, to a London emaciated and embittered by wartime privation, where the thrill of victory has worn off to leave behind an aching desperation. Intelligence officer Gus Clifton returns home from his posting in Berlin to his family home in Clapham; to his sisters Julia and Tilly, and his fiancee Nella. It should have been a happy homecoming. But it bears a sting in the tail, for Gus comes home with his new wife. Krista. A German woman.

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Frantz

Frantz

★★★★

(directed by François Ozon, 2017)

Anna’s life has ended before it’s even begun. Like so many young men from her small German town, her fiancé Frantz never came home from the war. Widowed without ever having been a wife, she lives with his bereaved parents, two good old people who love her like their own daughter. Every day she goes to tend Frantz’s grave in the cemetery – an empty grave, for his body was never identified – and it’s here, one day, that she sees a stranger standing in front of Frantz’s headstone. A tall young man, who leaves a flower on Frantz’s grave and walks away with tears in his eyes. Anna is intrigued. Who is this young man? How does he know Frantz? And can he give them any of the answers they so desperately seek? With the emotional intensity of a chamber piece, this film is a very moving meditation on grief, loss, guilt and learning to live again.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Berlin)

★★★★

(Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Diego Fasolis, 13 December 2017)

Berlin’s Staatsoper has just reopened after a seven-year refurbishment. On Wednesday, the house was sold out as people gathered to celebrate its freshly gilded finery. And what was on the menu for the grand reopening? Not a safe and predictable opera – a Tosca or a Bohème – but a dose of Roman passion and psychosis from the 17th century. With only three performances (this was the last, until its projected revival next summer), this Poppea felt intense, fresh and daring. It wasn’t without its wobbles, but it featured some very strong casting and offered a compelling picture of a court in thrall to an egotistical, unpredictable sun king. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got slightly carried away with the length of this post, so you may wish to furnish yourself with a cup of tea before starting. There are, however, some very pretty pictures.

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The Hangman’s Daughter: Oliver Pötzsch

★★★

The Hangman’s Daughter: Book I

There’s an amusing story about a time, some years ago, when I decided to read The Hangman’s Daughter. It had recently come out and I’d heard good reviews, so I trotted off to the library and borrowed it. I did my best to get into it, but it was rather staid and old-fashioned and I really wasn’t impressed. Then I realised what had happened. I’d taken out The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter by Ambrose Bierce. Having now, finally, found the right novel, I enjoyed this tale of small-town life and witchcraft in 17th-century Germany, although I’d have liked it even more if it were a bit more streamlined.

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Eagles in the Storm: Ben Kane

★★★★

The Eagles Trilogy: Book III

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this final book in Ben Kane’s Eagles trilogy, which completes a story that I’ve followed avidly in Eagles at War and Hunting the Eagles. The series follows the military and psychological aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, when three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were wiped out by a German tribal army under the aegis of the chieftain Arminius, a former Roman ally. In the first book we watched the tragedy unfold; in the second, set some years later, we saw the young general Germanicus stiffening the Romans’ resolve as Arminius tried to knit the tribes together into a viable force. Now, in 15-16 AD, the moment has come for battle to be joined again, and this time there can be only one victor.

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Messages from a Lost World: Stefan Zweig

★★★★ ½

Europe on the Brink

Everyone has been talking about echo chambers recently. Those of us cosily insulated in our liberal-metropolitan-elite ivory towers, with our European friends and our Guardian diet, have had quite a wake-up call this year. We were lulled by our Facebook and Twitter feeds, which reflected back our own views ad infinitum, until it seemed inconceivable that anyone else could think differently. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we have to justify or, worse, defend our longing for a community greater than ourselves. In light of all this, Pushkin Press’s publication of Stefan Zweig’s essays is nothing short of inspired. Written a hundred years ago, these short pieces are charged with the despair of a generation which weathered two cataclysmic wars. They are terrifyingly relevant today. Simple, powerful and unapologetically intelligent, they’re absolutely vital reading as we wait in the shadow of Brexit. Unfortunately those who most need to read them are precisely those who won’t.

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Gutenberg’s Apprentice: Alix Christie

★★★ ½

What was the year that changed the world? We could probably argue about that until we were all blue in the face, but 1450 has more claim than most. For it was in this year, in Mainz, that a small team of artisans began work on a formidably ambitious project: the creation of the very first book printed with movable type. This novel follows the gestation of this project, drawing out all the sweat and labour of the process, under the beady eye of its suspicious, unpredictable, misanthropic begetter: Gutenberg.

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Hunting the Eagles: Ben Kane

★★★★

The Eagles Trilogy: Book II

Five years after the massacre in the Teutoburg Forest, we rejoin the Roman centurion Tullus, his optio Fenestela and his loyal men Piso and Vitellius as they work to come to terms with the loss of their legion and their eagle. Their presence at the catastrophe has hit them hard. Officially forbidden to set foot in Rome, they remain on the German frontier, allocated to new legions, demoted (in Tullus’ case) and subject to the stares and mockery of men who weren’t there to witness what they saw.

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Arminio: George Frideric Handel (1737)

1dd12-arminio1

★★★½

(Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 17 February 2016)

So, by a remarkable stroke of luck, my business trip coincided with the Karlsruhe Handel Festival. By even more remarkable good fortune, Parnassus were staging their new production of Handel’s Arminio on the night I arrived and there was an excellent seat still free right in the centre of the eighth row of the stalls. As they say, it would’ve been rude not to.

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