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Flash Reviews: ‘Ox Crimes’, ‘Black Eyed Susans’, and ‘Vinegar Girl’

Time for three more mini reviews!

Ox Crimes by Various Authors *** 9781781250648
I purchased Ox Crimes whilst seeking out my Scorching Summer Reads pile because it sounded wonderful. I love the idea behind it; twenty seven crime writers donating a story apiece to Oxfam. As with the majority of anthologies, there were a few stories which didn’t really interest me – the more hardboiled detective ones in this case – but on a high note, I have also (finally) discovered Stella Duffy.

I very much enjoyed how quirky a lot of these stories were; there were unusual elements to them for the most part, and not one could be termed run-of-the-mill. A mixed bag of crime stories, let’s face it, but literature for a good cause is always worth buying.

 

9781405921275Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin ***
I have been trying to read more thrillers of late, and Black Eyed Susans has undoubtedly been hyped. Whilst travelling to my early morning lectures, I must have seen a dozen posters with that eye-catching field of flowers, featuring the slightly ambiguous naked woman, dotted around the underground.

My thoughts about the novel are a mixed bag, as I had a feeling they might be. The storyline is intriguing; it has elements of the general thriller, but there are a few twists to it in places that I wasn’t quite expecting. Heaberlin’s writing didn’t blow me away, but the pacing was strong. The merging of past and present stories worked well, but the tenses were undoubtedly confused at times (and I say this as a proofreader). Black Eyed Susans felt, to me, rather drawn out in places, and whilst it kept me entertained, I don’t think I’d rush to pick up another of Heaberlin’s novels.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler * 9781781090190
This had so much potential. WHY WAS IT SO DULL!?

I love Shakespeare. I love The Taming of the Shrew. I love the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I greatly admire what the authors have done. I had hoped that this would suck me in as Jeannette Winterson’s book did, but alas. There are nowhere near enough echoes of the original here; if you were not aware that this was a rewriting of Shakespeare, I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to guess.

I’ve not had the best experience with Anne Tyler’s novels in the past; I have begun three, and abandoned three. I think I’m going to give her up as a bad job. Thoroughly disappointing, and hopefully not a precursor of the rest of the series!

 

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‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson ***

In justifying her choice to retell The Winter’s Tale as part of her contribution to the new Hogarth Shakespeare imprint, Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around.  I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years’.  Rather than refer to her newest offering as a retelling, she prefers to call it a ‘cover version’.  Hers is the text which launches the new series, which will feature contributions from several of the world’s most prominent and important contemporary authors, including Margaret Atwood, who takes on The Tempest, and Anne Tyler, who has chosen The Taming of the Shrew.  The series aims to ‘introduce’ Shakespeare’s plays to ‘a new generation of fans’.  Hogarth Shakespeare itself is a member of Shakespeare400, which has been coordinated by King’s College London, to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

The blurb of The Gap of Time states that it ‘vibrates with echoes of the original play but tells a contemporary story of betrayal, paranoia, redemption and hope…  It shows us that however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found’.  Here, Winterson tells the tale of Perdita, ‘the abandoned child’, whose story has a lot in common with her own.  It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time that Winterson has turned her hand to creating a retelling of sorts; Weight, about the myth of Atlas and Heracles, was part of the Canongate Myths series, and is well worth seeking out.

The Gap of Time consists of two plots, which intertwine at pivotal points.  The first of these is set in an area of the United States called ‘New Bohemia’, and deals with a black man named Shep, who finds a white baby during a storm.  The second – which is nowhere near as compelling, and flounders in places – takes place in London, just after the 2008 financial crash.  Here, Leo Kaiser is ‘struggling to manage the jealousy he feels towards his best friend and his wife’.  These plotlines merge seventeen years later in New Bohemia, when ‘a boy and a girl are falling in love but there’s a lot they don’t know about who they are and where they come from’.  Winterson tells ‘a contemporary story where Time itself is a player in a game of high stakes that will either end in tragedy or forgiveness’.

A nice touch is that the book opens with Shakespeare’s original plot; this leads nicely into Winterson’s own handling of the material.  She keeps each of the main elements of the original play, but invents more modern-sounding concepts and constructs to really put her own spin on things; for example, the BabyHatch which is installed outside the hospital which Shep walks past, and which allows parents to neglect their babies in rather a humane fashion.  She is masterful at immediately setting the scene: ‘I saw the strangest sight tonight.  I was on my way home, the night hot and heavy, the way it gets here at this time of year so that your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry.  I’d been playing piano in the bar I play in, and nobody wanted to leave, so I was later than I like to be’.  Her descriptions, whilst not threaded throughout the entire text, are often quite sensuous in a simple manner: ‘The street had all the heat of the day, of the week, of the month, of the season’.

With the construction of several of her characters, there seems to be an overriding honesty.  Winterson has used both the first and third person perspectives to break up the separate stories here, and the former – particularly when it also uses a sort of stream-of-consciousness technique – makes it feel very personal: ‘I sat in the car like this after my wife died.  Staring out of the windscreen seeing nothing.  The whole day passed and then it was night and nothing had changed because everything had changed’.  The third person perspective does distance the reader from Leo’s story, however.  The present tense has been well cultivated, and gives a sense of modernity to the whole; it pulls it firmly into the twenty-first century.  Poignant phrases and ideas have been made use of too: ‘What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?’, and ‘I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there’.

In The Gap of Time – and, indeed, with respect to the Hogarth Shakespeare series in its entirety – it is demonstrated that Shakespeare’s themes are still universal in the modern world.  His stories are just as relevant today as they were when he was writing, and the relationships built between characters are just as perceptive.  In The Gap of Time, darkness creeps in where one least expects it, whether you are familiar with the original or not, and Shakespeare’s story has definitely been well transplanted into the modern age.

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‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’ by Liza Campbell

This is a gem of a book! Liza Campbell has written a beautifully composed book of her growing up in Scotland’s

‘A Charmed Life’ by Liza Campbell

Cawdor castle (the setting for Macbeth), and the the downward spiral of her father the 25th Thane. This memoir is several years removed from the year of her father’s death, which lends a mature aspect to her writing.

I usually don’t read much memoir, because sometimes it seems too rushed or lacking in retrospection. Not in this, though. The father and his wide appetites – for alcohol, women, self-absorption, etc. – make for one hell of a story and for the author, one hell of a way to grow up.  Along with her to the point writing style, she has an amazing dry wit, with passages that made me laugh out loud.

Woven through the family story are descriptions of Scotland’s beauty, legends, history and lore. One underlying theme seems to be that despite having a castle and wealth, this family was encased in solitude and distance, created by the rules of title and the parents’ aloof attitudes to the children. I think anyone could enjoy this book –  the time period is mid 1960s (her musings about this era and her father are great) and her writing style flows steadily and is a pleasure to read.

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The End of Shakespeare

I proclaim that 2013 is my Year of Shakespeare.  It has been the first year in which I ventured to London’s stunning Globe Theatre, and I have also now completed all of his plays – a major, if rather nerdy, achievement.  The final plays of the great Bard’s which I had lined up to read in December were Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well.

‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

Timon of Athens **
Timon of Athens
was my penultimate play.  The marvellous RSC introduction states that ‘with its paucity of female characters and absence of familial bonds, this will always remain one of Shakespeare’s least known, least loved and least performed plays’.  You can see from my two star rating above that I agreed wholeheartedly with this.  It is thought that Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens alongside another author, Thomas Middleton.  As a whole entity, it does not seem to flow as well as I have come to expect from the plays, and the plot is occasionally a little disjointed.  The writing from scene to scene has an entirely different feel about it, which certainly leads me to believe that co-authorship had a hand in its creation.  Timon of Athens is interesting from a cultural and historical perspective, but it is by no means one of his best.

All’s Well That Ends Well ****
This is one of Shakespeare’s ‘least performed and least loved comedies’.  (Are you noticing a theme here?)  Granted, it did not feel as funny as the other comedy plays; perhaps because the underlying plot is quite melancholy at times.  I found All’s Well That Ends Well very enjoyable on the whole, however, and feel that it is a good play to end on.  It is well written, and flows nicely, particularly in comparison to the aforementioned!

If any of you are thinking of embarking on such an ambitious challenge, I would advise you that it is incredibly rewarding to do so, and wish you the best of luck.

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Focusing Upon Shakespeare

As I am sure regular readers of The Literary Sisters know, this year I challenged myself to read all of the Shakespeare plays which I hadn’t yet studied or read in my spare time.  I made myself a list which included two or three plays per month, and have been reading my way through them accordingly.  The project has been great fun, and I am rather sad that I am nearing the end as the year draws to a close.  Below are my reviews for the two Shakespeare plays which I read in October – The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

The Bard

The Merchant of Venice ****This is one of the plays which I was most looking forward to reading.  I am sure that many of you know the major plotline, so I won’t go into detail about it.  I love the storyline which has been crafted here, and I found it both simple and clever.  The sharp divide between different religions – here, Judaism and Christianity – has been marvellously exemplified, and is most interesting to read.  Overall, The Merchant of Venice is really quite profound.  Shylock’s speech was pitch perfect, and often rather sorrowful, and I feel as though Shakespeare built him up believably as a protagonist.  I loved all of the references to Ancient Greece woven throughout too.  It is not quite my favourite play overall, but it is one of the most interesting from a social and historical perspective.  I would adore to see it live, so fingers crossed it may be part of The Globe’s summer season for 2014.  If so, I shall be first in line for a ticket.

Othello ****
Again, Othello was another play which I couldn’t wait to read.  As with The Merchant of Venice, I won’t go into detail regard its plot, but I will say that it shares quite a lot of the same themes.  It is written beautifully, and the story has been woven together intelligently and believably.  Othello is not a very happy play by any means – my thoughts upon finishing were, ‘Well, that was cheery!’ – but it is well paced and the characters and situations have clearly been given a lot of thought.  I very much enjoyed it, and think that it would be marvellous on stage.

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‘Shakespeare on Toast’ by Ben Crystal ****

2012-11-04-ShakespeareonToast

‘Shakespeare on Toast’ by Ben Crystal

I purchased this little gem from The Globe Theatre when I visited it in June for a beautiful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I chose it because I adored the title and artwork, and who doesn’t like a bookish souvenir or two? (My other bookish purchase was Bill Bryson’s excellent Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, which I would highly recommend).

This may sound awfully snobbish, but I don’t have much trouble at all with Shakespeare, and find him rather easy to understand, particularly after studying him for several years at school and undertaking to read the remainder of his plays over the course of this year.  Crystal states that those who wish to garner more understanding of Shakespeare’s work are his primary audience, but I still got rather a lot from the book despite the fact that I do not fall into the majority camp.  The first thing I noticed about Shakespeare on Toast was the marvellous way in which the chapters were organised into ‘Acts’ and ‘Scenes’.  Each separate scene of Crystal’s is only a few pages long, so it is both an easy volume to read all in one greedy gulp (as I did), or to dip in and out of when you have a few moments to spare.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Shakespeare on Toast…

I liked the way in which Crystal put each of Shakespeare’s plays into context, examining the social aspects of the time which he believes inspired the Bard – for example, the belief that Macbeth was written following the failed attempt by Mr Fawkes and Co to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  I learnt some things whilst I was reading that haven’t been covered in lessons or books about Shakespeare which I’ve participated in or read – namely that you can buy plush Shakespeare dolls.  Truly.  They are really rather creepy.

Shakespeare on Toast  is interesting and informative, and is a great little book for anyone interested in the plays.  Crystal’s writing style works nicely, and his informality makes it a marvellous volume to engage with.  I liked all of the little textboxes throughout too, which contained extra information, and which were a nice addition to the main body of text.

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Flash Reviews (9th September 2013)

King Lear by William Shakespeare ****
This is one of the plays which I’ve been most looking forward to reading during my Year of Shakespeare.  I liked the bare bones of the plot, and felt that they worked well, particularly when Shakespeare’s beautiful writing came into force.  I very much enjoyed the different prose styles in King Lear, particularly with regard to their concurrent use by the same characters.  Rather a sad play, but an incredibly good one.

The Dwarves of Death by Jonathan Coe **
My Dad told me that I should read this book merely due to the amount of Smiths lyrics used within it.  (This was one of the only aspects of the novel which I enjoyed – along with the title, of course).  He had warned me before I began that it wasn’t very good.  (He was right).  The entirety of The Dwarves of Death is poorly written, and the narrator, William, is nothing short of an idiot.  The dialogue is dull, and the dwarves which feature in the title only star on a couple of pages.  There is very little about the actual murder, and the majority of the book goes into a kind of sad reverie, focusing almost solely upon middle-aged men rehearsing music with one another.  I would not be inclined to read another Coe book after this one, that’s for sure.

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane ***
Let me begin by saying that I adore Helen Dryden’s 1915 Vogue cover which has been used to adorn this book. 

'Treasure Hunt' by Molly Keane

‘Treasure Hunt’ by Molly Keane

Isn’t it absolutely lovely?  I was expecting great things from Treasure Hunt as I so enjoyed Keane’s Good Behaviour, but was a little apprehensive about it when I learnt that the novel had been translated from play form, something rarely done in the literary world.  In terms of its plotline, Treasure Hunt was rather weak.  I certainly expected more to happen as it went on.  I found the entire cast of characters difficult to sympathise and empathise with, and they weren’t believably built up as individuals.  Keane’s descriptions, particularly those of landscapes and the interiors of buildings, were lovely.  I think that their beauty contrasted well with the lacklustre, almost melancholy feel of the family dynamic.  My major qualm about this novel was the amount of dialogue (too much) and the information it actually gave to the reader (not much).  The three stars which I have awarded the book are for the descriptions alone.

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson ****
I think Lily is one of Wilson’s best protagonists.  She is strong, brave and courageous, and despite being only eleven years old, she always tries to do the best things for those around her.  The characters in Lily Alone are so well realised, and Lily’s younger sister, Bliss, was particularly lovely.  The only downside I found in this novel was the language which Wilson uses.  I can’t imagine many eleven year olds saying a lot of the things that Lily does, nor any three year olds saying, ‘You bet!’.

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Sunday Snapshot: Plays

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Williams portrays relationships, even the most complicated, in a masterful manner. I love the way in which he writes. His characterisation is second to none, and he gives one so much to admire in each scene, each act. The characters were all fundamentally troubled souls, each imperfect in his or her own way, but they worked so well as a cast, and Blanche Du Bois is eternally endearing. Williams’ dialogue is pitch perfect. An absolutely marvellous, perceptive, strong and unforgettable play, and one which I’m now longing to see performed.

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
I have rather a mixed bag of comments here. The prose of the narrators is absolutely gorgeous. The descriptions throughout drip with opulent words, and Thomas creates imagery so deftly. The language which they use is so rich. I love the way in which the scene is set. The use of the narrators and how they hand over the speech to one another is rather clever, and I feel that this would be stunning on the stage. You can tell throughout that words are Thomas’ forte. I love the poetic detail which creeps in. The use of long and short sentences was balanced perfectly, and I liked the way in which the little vignettes and asides were sewn together, and the separate stories which were woven through. I also loved the way in which the audience was addressed personally, as though we were a character. I liked the narration far more than the conversations between characters. They often felt dull and flat in comparison. This is the main issue I had with the play. It seemed imbalanced in consequence, and inconsistent too.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
I’m over halfway through my 2013 Shakespeare challenge, a fact which at once makes me both sad and jubilant. One of my favourite elements of his plays is the notion of disguise and mistaken identities. Much Ado About Nothing, happily, has both. It is not my favourite Shakespearean work, and the characters will not stay with me in the same way as Titania and Titus Andronicus, for example, but I must admit that I cheered inwardly when I realised that some of the prose here has been used in Mumford & Sons’ lyrics. Much Ado About Nothing is definitely a great play on the whole, and I imagine that it would transfer well to the stage.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
There are such fun elements to this story. It’s not one which I was overly familiar with before, but I’m so glad I’ve read it! I must say that my Italian isn’t quite good enough to be able to translate a lot of the phrases, but I got the definite jist of it as the play progressed. Some of the prose was incredibly amusing, and other parts were just beautiful. It’s a play which I’d love to see performed.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
I love the way in which all of Shakespeare’s plays have such a wealth of settings. This takes place in the late Roman Empire, and the settings and characters are crafted beautifully. This play shocked audiences right up to the Second World War for its grotesque storylines, but it is so good! I loved the story, prose and rhythm, and this definitely ranks as one of my favourite Shakespeare plays to date.

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Flash Reviews (8th August 2013)

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
This year, I have been reading my way through The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. My second scheduled play for July was Henry VIII. I was rather skeptical about beginning it, as I had to read Richard III for my studies at school and very much disliked the experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised here. Whilst it isn’t my favourite Shakespearean work by any means, Henry VIII is very well written, as Shakespeare’s plays invariably are. I must admit that I was expecting more to happen, but it was entertaining enough to fill a couple of hours.

The Return of The Soldier by Rebecca West
I very much enjoyed The Fountain Overflows when I read it last year, and couldn’t wait to read more of West’s fiction. I loved the way in which The Return of The Soldier launched straight into the story, and the fact that questions were raised in my mind from the very first page. I adore West’s descriptions, particularly those of her surroundings. She really does use colour and light magnificently. The sense of place and time has been captured wonderfully, as has the passing of years for the characters. She portrays the horrors of war with such startling starkness, and these passages act as a wonderful if horrid contrast to her descriptions. Shell shock and memory loss were captured sensitively, and with such care. Jenny’s narrative voice in this lovely novella was wonderful, and it matched the unfolding story so well. The relationships between characters, and the way in which they shift and adapt with time, have been deftly and believably portrayed. A beautiful novella, and one of the loveliest I’ve ever read.

Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare
April’s love for de la Mare’s poetry has made me consider him amongst my favourite poets, a high accolade indeed. Peacock Pie is an adorable collection, and I wish I had known about it when I was younger, as I imagine that it would have been a firm favourite of mine. De la Mare writes beautifully, and it is clear that he had such admiration for and love of the English language. I love his plays on words and rhyme schemes.

Beatrix Potter: A Holiday Diary, edited by Judy Taylor
My boyfriend and I visited a marvellous bookshop in Cambridge for the first time last Monday. We have been coveting a visit to it for ages, but each time we’ve woven down the little side alley to go there, it has been closed. Imagine my delight last week when we found that not only was it open, and crammed from floor to ceiling with all wonders of new, secondhand and antiquarian books, but that it had an entire shelf of beautiful books by and about Beatrix Potter. This was one of the Potterish purchases I made, the other being a gorgeous hardback of her collected letters. I could happily have bought them all, but I doubt I would have been able to carry them out of the shop, let alone to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant where we had lunch, and then back to the car after more shops had been visited. This volume is slight but extremely sweet, and I love the many pictures throughout. It is a real shame that nobody had thought to edit out the spelling mistakes though – Norman Warne’s name was, in one instance, ‘Normal’, for example. Regardless, I would certainly buy more books published by the Beatrix Potter Society. Even their lovely pastel colours just ooze charm.