Sunday Retrospective ~ March 9th 2019

A very brief retrospective this week because I am running up against the deadline for the second assignment on my Shakespeare course so just two simple genre related points.

First, a plea for help.  A friend of mine (really, a friend of mine, I’m not hiding behind a false anonymity here) has been asked by the local library service to select books for some of their housebound borrowers. One of these only wants to read what I would call cosy (cozy) crime.  My friend isn’t a crime reader at all and I am not really into the cosy end of the spectrum.  I have the beginnings of a list of recommendations but would welcome any further suggestions. This borrower gets through fifteen books a month so it may have to become a question of quantity over quality.

My current list is

A C Beaton

Carola Dunn

Elizabeth Peters

Alan Hunter

Kerry Greenwood

Simon Brett

Nicola Upson

Frances Brody

I shall also suggest that she looks at writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Elizabeth Peters and, if those go down well, point her in the direction of the British Library Classic Crime series.  Are there any other writers that you can suggest?  We would both be very grateful for any help you can give.

Secondly, an observation about my own stupidity.  I have been reading my friend Helen’s blog, She Reads Novels, quite literally for years. As those of you who are discriminating enough to do the same will know, Helen mostly reads and blogs about historical fiction.  I really enjoy her posts but if you had asked me before the beginning of this week I would have told you that personally I was not a fan of the genre.  Well, on Wednesday The Walter Scott Prize announced the long list for this year’s award, which unsurprisingly is for Historical Fiction and Helen posted about it here. I was astounded.  What do I mean I don’t read historical fiction?  I’ve already read three of these novels and have another three on my up and coming list. (That’s the one with books I really do intend to read as opposed to the tbr list which we all know is a flight of fancy.). So, I went back and checked previous nominees and discovered that one year I’d read the entire short list!  I simply didn’t classify them as Historical Fiction because in my mind (Helen, I’m really sorry!) they were far too good.

Actually, I think there are two factors at work here.  First, when I was reading historical fiction, in my teens, there were a lot of poorly written examples of the genre and for the most part what I was borrowing from the library was substandard romance fiction in an historical setting. That experience has undoubtedly coloured my view. The second is to do with what counts as historical. For goodness sake, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle is on one of the short lists. That describes events that happened in my own life time. When did I become historical?

Anyway, enough of my blinkered approach to genre. As soon as my course is over (I have loved doing it, but it has really cut into reading time) I am going to mine the back lists of the Walter Scott Prize because, if the novels I have read are anything to go by, the others are going to be well worth exploring too.

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The Scholar ~ Dervla McTiernan

Dervla McTiernan’s first novel, The Ruin, which introduced Galway based Gardaí sergeant, Cormac Reilly, was published last year to almost universal acclaim.  I very much enjoyed it on a first read, but was less certain a second time round.  I thought McTiernan started too many hares and that as a result the central narrative line got lost. I was also concerned about the number of members of the Galway force who were at best incompetent, at worst corrupt.  I have friends living in Galway and I feared for their safety.  I came to The Scholar, the second in the series, therefore, with a certain amount of trepidation.  Fortunately, this novel is more tightly plotted and, while there are still one or two members of the force who clearly have issues, I suspect that is true of any group of police and this time round there is, thank goodness, a sense that as a whole they do actually want to see justice done.

Cormac Reilly has transferred from Dublin to Galway to be with his partner, Emma Sweeney, who has secured a five year funded position at a medical research lab.  The two met after Emma was charged with a murder from which she was later exonerated and the experience, unsurprisingly, has left scars on both of them.  When, therefore, Emma rings Cormac and tells him that she has found a dead body in the University car park he is concerned not only for her well-being but also that she may be seen as a suspect in what turns out to be a particularly vicious, and clearly deliberate, hit and run.  When it becomes apparent that the victim has links to the facility in which Emma works Reilly’s involvement in the case becomes questionable however, he is determined to hang on to the investigation not only to ensure that Emma is not unduly pressured but also because this is the first real test of his ability in his new posting.

At the heart of the case are two seriously dysfunctional families.  Carline Darcy is the granddaughter of a man who has made billions through the development of medical advances. John Darcy is a seriously nasty piece of work, who has no time for Carline despite the fact that she seems to crave his approval.  To that end she has enrolled on the Bio-Pharmaceutical Chemistry degree at the University and is seeking to prove by her work that she is worthy of a place in Darcy Pharmaceuticals.  Here she encounters and works alongside Della Lambert, the eldest daughter of a family struggling to make ends meet after the financial crash causes her father to lose his business.  On the face of it, the two girls have nothing in common, but there is one thing that Della can apparently offer Carline: a way to gain her grandfather’s approval.

To anyone who has worked in the University sector, Carline’s plan is obviously flawed,  but at eighteen you think you can order the world to run in line with your scenario.  Sooner rather than later her scheme would have come crashing down around both girls heads. However, there is one member of Darcy Pharmaceutical who can’t afford to wait for that to happen and, with Emma Sweeney on hand to be offered up as the obvious suspect, that individual decides to take deadly action.

I think this is definitely a more tightly written book than The Ruin and McTiernan has given greater definition to more of her characters, especially Emma, Cormac’s fellow sergeant, Carrie O’Halloran, and Garda Peter Fisher, who is clearly ripe either for promotion for using his own initiative or dismissal on the grounds of overstepping the mark. While she isn’t yet rivalling Claire McGowan or Tana French in respect of Irish crime writing, I will certainly be coming back for more.

The Scandal ~ Mari Hannah

Over the past several years Mari Hannah has been a prolific writer, sometimes publishing as many as three books in a twelve month. She has three series on the go, that featuring DCI Kate Daniels, the Matthew Ryan books and most recently novels centred around DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. All of her work is set in the North East and sometimes characters, most notably DCS Bright, Head of CID, cross from one series to another. The Scandal is the third appearance for Stone and Oliver along with Ben, Stone’s nephew and Belinda Wells, that unusual phenomenon in crime fiction, a journalist who can be trusted.

Chris Adams, (another decent journalist, so perhaps I am prejudice) is found dying in a dark alleyway.  His murder hits Frankie hard.  She and Chris had grown up together and because of past experiences in her own family she is only too aware of how this is going to effect his mother, a woman who has already had to fight the demon of alcoholism. Very early on in the investigation the suggestion is raised that the journalist’s death might have been a means of siliencing him in respect of a story he was chasing.  Following this up, however, proves difficult as his editor, Mark Fox, clearly had no time for the young man and refuses to credit the idea that he could possibly have had anything of importance to report. At this point, somewhat reluctantly Stone brings Belinda Wells into the picture, reluctantly because Ben, the nephew to whom Stone has become a surrogate father, is shadowing the journalist and the DCI would prefer to keep the young man out of his policing life.

Gradually, links are made between Adams and a missing woman, Nancy Carver.  The reader already knows that Nancy has made plans to disappear, as the book opens with her attempts to vanish from her job and leave no evidence as to where she has gone. The implication is that she is about to become a whistleblower, but whether or not she has been able to make good her escape, whether her current status as a misper is voluntary or enforced, is something we are left to speculate about.  Whatever her situation, it becomes clear that the institution for which she worked is going to bear close scrutiny; not however, if Stone has anything to do with it, at the hands of his nephew.

Hannah starts a number of hares in this novel: the abuse of a particular section of the public, the plight of those who are forced into homelessness and the effect that staff reduction measures are having on the police.  I can get on board with all of these but I did feel that at times, especially where the latter is concerned, she stood on her soapbox too often and banged her drum just a little bit too hard.  No one who reads modern crime fiction can help but be aware of the difficulties our police forces are facing in the current economic climate and while one of the genre’s most important features is the way in which it draws attention to those aspects of our society that it can be most difficult to acknowledge, I think it is better when the story is allowed to make that point for itself rather than having it over emphasised. Nevertheless, this is as good a read as all of Hannah’s other work and if you haven’t already enjoyed her novels then I strongly recommend her.  If you’re new to the author, however, I would suggest you go back to the beginning at least of this series and possibly to the beginning of her output, to orientate yourself to her world and I envy you having all eleven of her books still to enjoy.

With thanks to the Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel.

The Truth About Lies ~ Tracy Darnton

Once, long ago and probably in a land far away, I used to lecture in Children’s Literature. For the best part of forty years, if you wanted to know what was current on the children’s/YA book scene I was the person to whom you turned.  However, over the last decade I have gradually left that existence behind and very much lost touch with what is being published in a field that dominated my reading for most of my adult life.  Then, a couple of weeks ago Waterstones sent me one of their regular emails announcing the short lists for their Children’s Book Prize for 2019 and just out of curiosity I glanced through it to see if there were any names I recognised. What I wasn’t expecting was to see my own surname there.

Now, if your name is Smith or Jones coming across someone with the same surname as you must be pretty much a daily occurrence, but when you share that name with less than two hundred people world wide it rather takes your breath away.  So, out of sheer nosiness for the first time in over ten years I found myself ordering and reading a YA novel and, thank goodness, very much enjoying it.

Jess Wilson is a relatively new student at Dartmeet College in Devon. Like many of the other students there she has been traumatised by the fate of her roommate, Hanna, who has fallen to her death from the window of the room they shared.  The relationship between Jess and Hanna had been fraught, not the least because Hanna had started a romance with Ed, the boy that Jess fancied, and Jess, when we first meet her, is clearly concerned that her subsequent behaviour towards Hanna was responsible, in one way or another, for her death.  However, Jess has far more to worry her than that, because she carries secrets from her past life that isolate her not only from the other students but from the wider world as well.  Blessed or cursed (take your pick) not only with a photographic (eidetic) memory but also with hyperthymesia, the type of memory that allows an individual to recall everything that has ever happened to them, Jess has run away from a programme led by one Professor Coleman where she has been more or less used as a lab rat to find out whether or not it is possible to erase traumatic memories from people’s minds.  No more PTSD – or at least that is the more anodyne of the possible outcomes of the Professor’s research.  Of course, if you want to test a theory like that then the subject involved has to have a traumatic memory for you to erase and Jess’s memory of her mother’s death in a road traffic accident fits the bill perfectly.

Or does it?  As Jess finds herself, however unwillingly, becoming more and more involved in the life of the College and her fellow students she, and the reader, begin to question the accuracy and the completeness of her recall. If there is no one against whom you can test your memory how do you know what you remember is what actually happened; how can you be certain that there aren’t things that you have forgotten?  This is a first person narrative.  When I am being told that the narrator is as reliable as it is possible to get, perhaps I should be asking if really, however unwittingly, Jess isn’t the ultimate unreliable narrator.  Was she involved in Hanna’s death?  Is Professor Coleman actually the monster she makes out?  This is what Jess and the reader have to explore.

The Truth About Lies is an extremely interesting exploration both of how our memory can define us and how it can deceive us as to who we truly are.  Coming immediately after my reading of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, where memory is set against thought, Tracy Darnton’s book pits it against feelings, suggesting that while it may be possible to wipe out recall of events, erasing the feelings attached to those events is neither possible nor desirable.  This is an excellent first novel and if I baulked a bit at the dénouement I pulled myself up short and reminded myself that many an adult thriller has an ending that seems a bit too neat.  Will it win the Waterstone’s prize?  I don’t know.  Maybe I should return to my roots and read the other contenders. This book has made me recall why I chose to specialise in Children’s Literature in the first place.

 

Sunday Retrospective ~ February 24th 2019

During weeks three and four of my Shakespeare course we were focusing on Twelfth Night.  (Henry V this past week and next, The Bears have spent the last few days declaiming ‘Once more unto the breach’ and proudly proclaiming themselves a ‘band of brothers’; goodness only knows what is going to happen when we reach ‘Exit pursued by a Bear’.) anyway, back to the point – Twelfth Night.  One of the things we were asked to consider was what constitutes a comedy and what makes us laugh.  Well, the general view in our family is that I was born without a funny bone because almost nothing makes me laugh.  Oh, I can laugh because I’m happy, but laughing because I am amused almost never happens.

In fact, I think this might be because I was exposed to Shakespearean comedy from a very early age and the point that was being made on the course was that for Elizabethan audiences comedy was very much about structure.  We start with a certain amount of chaos, proceed to stir things up even more and then in Act Five (not that they would have called it that) we miraculously manage to bring everything to a happy(ish) conclusion.  Comedy describes the journey not the rib tickling sideshows along the way.  I am still fascinated by how this, and other narrative structures, work out and obviously never got round to taking account of the funny bits along the way.

All this is by way of a preface to telling you that yesterday I went to Stratford to see not a Shakespearean Comedy but a retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe set among Birmingham’s British Pakistani community with Tartuffe as a fundamentalist Muslim preaching reform to the paterfamilias of a modern family who have adopted a British lifestyle – even Grandma, although she would never admit it –  in an attempt to fleece them all of their money and possessions and the women of their honour as well.  Now, I could see that this was a clever (possibly in the less than positive sense of that word; I haven’t quite decided yet) way of approaching the play to make it relevant to a current audience. Recasting the family maid, Dorine, as a Bosnian Muslim cleaning lady, Darina, was a stroke of genius and Michelle Bonnard was the star of the show. But, when everyone around me was laughing away, at times uproariously, I was sat there cringing because what was happening on stage was everything I would normally avoid. People, especially the aforementioned paterfamilias, were ranting and raving, making total fools of themselves and being blackmailed before our eyes and for the life of me I couldn’t, still can’t, see why this is supposed to be funny.  All right, I go in knowing that this is a comedy and therefore also knowing that it will all come out right in the end.  Tartuffe will get his comeuppance and family harmony will be restored.   But, I’m  still not sure why this makes it all right to laugh at people who are being duped.  Perhaps it’s my Asperger’s getting in the way. I don’t know. I do know that it was one of the most uncomfortable afternoon’s I’ve spent in a long time.

My discomfort wasn’t helped by the fact that the play ended with a ‘message’.  Now I don’t know the original well enough to be able to say whether or not it finishes with a warning about marginalising people because of the way they look.  Perhaps someone can tell me.  However, here Tartuffe’s final speeches preach the idea that it is impossible for someone who looks like him to make his way in British society by any other means than that which he has chosen. And I do mean preach.  It was far too obvious an insert for it to have any real impact.  And, I wasn’t certain quite what he meant.  If he was referring specifically to his long beard then he might have been said to have a point.  But, if he was just talking about British Muslims being unable to rise to positions of power then I surely can’t have been the only one who wanted to say “er – Home Secretary”?

I know that the problem is mine.  Everyone else there was having a great time until the final message clearly made them uneasy.  Not that their dis-ease lasted for long, mind you.  The comedy police act turned up just in time to save the day and the laughs.  They were straight out of a Brian Rix farce.  Another form of humour I never really understood.

Why did I go?  You may well ask.  But I live in hope that one day there will be a flash of light and suddenly all will be revealed to me. I will be able to join in with the mirth around me and be one of the crowd.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen yesterday.

Bellman and Black ~ Diane Setterfield

At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen.  But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it?  Or at least it is of the two to which I belong.  We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members.  I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists.  So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.

When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook.  This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on.  Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England.  His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades.  When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.

At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known.  William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,

[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.

In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard.  And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof.  It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed  most.  Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards.  But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.

We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed.  Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed.  The book begins and ends with William’s death.  Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.

Sunday Retrospective ~ February 17th 2019

It’s been a busy week!  It started with a visit to the dentist, never a good move.  In this case even less of a good move than usual as we ended up planning an intensive programme of further visits over the next six months or so.  There’s a passage in one of Helene Hanff’s books where she tells how she has been intending to visit London only to discover that she is going to have to spend her savings on dental treatment instead. I know just how she must have felt.  As I watched the projected costs mounting I could hear Jolyon Bear (he who keeps hold of the purse strings) in my head telling me that it is going to be the library for me for the next year or two.

Then I had my first assignment to write for my Shakespeare course – only 500 words, but that actually made it all the more difficult.  I just about managed it (518) in as much as I answered the question, but there was no room for eloquence and I always feel that anything you write should take account of the “music” of the words as well as the content.  This felt more like a simple check list of the points I needed to make than anything else.  Submitting it electronically was fun too as the instructions provided bore very little resemblance to what actually happened when I tried to download it onto the University site.  In the end one of the other students (a software engineer) and I found a way to get round the problem but IT support and I are going to have words tomorrow morning.  A Russell Group University should not be making mistakes like that.

So, all in all there has been very little time for reading or blogging this week.  I have just finished Mari Hannah’s latest Oliver and Stone novel, The Scandal, which comes out at the beginning of March so I will leave a review until nearer the publication date. I like Hannah’s work very much and for the most part this was no exception.  My one quibble was that she stood on a particular soapbox and thumped a particular drum rather too loudly and obviously and weakened her argument as a result, but more later.

I am also halfway through Diane Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman and Black which is next week’s Book Group choice.  I was one of the few people who didn’t like The Thirteenth Tale.  I was getting along fine with it until about three quarters of the way through and then the plot lost credibility for me and I felt cheated.  I was getting along fine with this book too until yesterday when it suddenly took a turn that left me feeling a bit grubby for reading it, so I’m not certain how I’m going to respond to what I still have left to read.  Still, at least there will be something to talk about next Wednesday. One of the things that I am most interested in is how unusual a choice it is for the person whose turn it was to select the book.  I’m also interested in the fact that I feel that way.  Perhaps we stereotype each other as particular categories of readers too easily.  It’s a lazy way of thinking.

Sunday Retrospective ~February 10th 2019

So, on to Twelfth Night this week for my online course.  I am much happier studying this play than I was with Macbeth.  It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage and was as responsible as anything for lighting in me the muse of fire (Henry V  next on the list) that has never since dimmed for a moment.  Actually, that first performance was staged by an all-girls’ school which, when you think about it, adds all sorts of interesting dynamics to the gender complexities that are at the heart of the play. Whereas Shakespeare had a boy playing a girl dressed as a man and being wooed by a girl who was also a boy while falling in love with a man who really was a man, that production had a girl playing a girl dressed as a boy being wooed by a girl who was also a girl but falling in love with a girl who was playing a man. Get your head round that, if you can. The last theatre production I saw played around with any number of homosexual innuendos but I’m willing to bet that that first staging, at the beginning of the 1960s and in an eminently respectable grammar school, didn’t have a lesbian overtone to be seen.  The focus of our study this coming week is the question of gender both on the Elizabethan stage and in the society in general.  I might bring that early staging up and see what others have to say about it.  Stirring again, you will notice.

Where my personal reading is concerned I have just finished Jo Spain’s latest book, Dirty Little Secrets. Spain is a writer I discovered last year through her Tom Reynolds’ series which, like this standalone novel, is set in the Irish Republic. I’m not a great lover of standalone thrillers, but I have enjoyed this author’s work so much that I thought it would be worthwhile giving this one a go; I wasn’t disappointed.  This may be in part because although it is a not one of the series, it is very much along the lines of a police procedure. It is, however, also due to the writers ability to unwrap mysteries slowly in front of her audience and allow them to play along with the detection game as well.

Olive is dead. More to the point, Olive has been dead for three months and none of her neighbours, in a small gated community, have noticed. It is only with the blue bottles and the smell become overpowering that the police are finally called in. They were community, however, is something of a misnomer, because the residents of Withered Vale have never exactly bonded. Each home keeps very much to itself, much to the annoyance of Olive, who would like to be part of the lives of her neighbours.   But would you want Olive involved in your life? As the story unfolds, told partially in flashback and from multiple perspectives, it becomes apparent that Olive has a way of ferreting out details of each household’s past and, whatever the circumstances, turning them into the dirty little secrets of the title.

Olive is dead, but is it a natural death, a terrible accident or was she murdered?  Frank Brazil, shortly to retire and happy just to put in a day’s work and go home, is called in with his partner Emma to try and find the answer.  But Frank and Emma each have their own secrets and as the investigation continues they, like the residents of Withered Vale, will find that by turning something into a secret you give it a power over you that it doesn’t necessarily merit.  It is the power that those secrets have, and the way in which they are coloured by the mind of the individual who either hoards them or discovers them, which lies at the heart of the book.  You may, as I did, realise who killed Olive some time before you get to the end of the novel, but that won’t stop you reading on because you will be as eager as I was to discover whether or not the other residents of the Vale will find the courage to face their secrets, acknowledge them openly and thereby deny them the power to continue controlling their lives.  Jo Spain is an excellent storyteller and if you haven’t yet discovered her work, then I seriously recommend her to you.

I don’t know how much personal reading I will get done this week because my first assignment is due in on the 19th.  It’s only 500 words long but that in itself makes it more difficult than if I could be expansive. I do have to find time to start Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black for my next book group.  Am I going to enjoy it?

Hagseed ~ Margaret Atwood

I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite.  I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless  it’s my position and I’m sticking with it.  I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either.  Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.

Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from.  In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.

Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge.  However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes.  Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge.  Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall.  But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest?  After all, there are fairies!

Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher.  The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself.  The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text?  He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them  relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb.  I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms.  It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.

Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself.  Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg.  Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?

(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed?  The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte.  Were takings falling?  Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea?  I simply ask the question.)

Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society.  They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations.  An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it.  My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.

Sunday Retrospective ~ February 3rd 2019

A better week all round really. The second week of my course that was devoted to Macbeth had much more of an emphasis on the theatre of 1606 and the politics that might have influenced the subject matter that Shakespeare included in the play.   I am fascinated by the writer’s work in context and so delving into James I reaction to the Gunpowder Plot and his views on kingship (he believed not simply in the Divine Right of Kings but that God had decreed that kings were gods themselves) has been much more my thing.  Nevertheless, I shan’t be sorry to leave the play behind and start tomorrow on Twelfth Night, which is one of my favourite texts. Where my own teaching is concerned, we finished with King Lear this week but not before one of my group had been off and done some research into Nahum Tate, the chap who rewrote the play in 1681. Having discovered that he was also a hymn writer this lady had set out to pin down just which hymns he was responsible for.  I think it is highly appropriate, if not a little ironic, that his most famous opus is that most plagiarised of works, While shepherds wash their socks by night.  Serves him right!

Not content with surrounded myself with Shakespeare academically,  my leisure reading has also been Shakespeare based this past few days. The choice for tomorrow afternoon‘s book group is Margaret Atwood‘s novel Hagseed, which is of course based on The Tempest. You will remember that I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. I don’t like the idea of turning Shakespeare’s plays into novels and sacrilegious as it may seem to many of you, I’m not really a fan of Atwood’s work.  Well, I’m ready to hold my hands up and say I was wrong. I enjoyed every last moment of this book and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I’m not going to say any more about it now, I’ll wait until after the discussion and then do a mid week post.  Something that I have found very interesting is the way in which reviews of the book divide. Those from the more general press are on the whole very favourable, but those published in academic journals,  considerably less so. That’s something I want to raise with the group when we meet and I’m tempted now to suggest that my other book group, which is a much more academia-based, put it onto their schedule.

My other reading this week has been Elly Griffith’s The Stone Circle, the latest instalment in her Ruth Galloway series.  I was disappointed in the last of these, The Dark Angel, which I felt got the balance between the crimes involved and the relationship between Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson, wrong. This is much better and again I will write about it after publication, which is later this week.