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.

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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?

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.

Sunday Retrospective ~ January 27th 2019

I’ve spent most of this week immersed in Shakespeare. The group I’m teaching is just coming to the end of a sequence of sessions on King Lear, one of my favourite plays.  We’ve been looking at the production history and as you might imagine there have been more than a few stagings to consider. However, there have been a couple of periods when it has been absent from the stage.  In 1810 it was banned because it was thought that audiences would draw a parallel between Lear’s madness and that of George III.  When the King died in 1820 producers fell over themselves to be the first to stage it again.  Then, it fell out of favour at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries after Henry Irving flopped in the part.  I find it fascinating that one man could so dominate the theatre scene that his failure in a role could see it ignored for eighteen years.  Presumably there had to be something wrong with the play itself if Irving was unable to rise to its demands.

Of course, for most of the period between 1681 and the middle of the nineteenth century it wasn’t so much Shakespeare’s version of the Lear story that was staged as the adaptation made by Nahum Tate, probably the most well-known of the many ‘re-writes’ of Shakespeare’s play’s that graced eighteenth and nineteenth century theatres. Among many other changes Tate is best known for his alteration of the ending.  In his version both Lear and Cordelia live, Cordelia marries Edgar and they rule in her father’s stead.  Lear, Kent and Gloucester go off and live in ‘a cool cell’.  I take it that is a reference to the temperature rather than an indication that they were having a rave up every night.

So, I have enjoyed teaching King Lear.  However, my other contact with the Bard this week has been via the material I’ve been asked to tackle for the first week of an on-line course which for the opening fortnight is concentrating on one of my least favourite plays, Macbeth.  I have a theory about Macbeth.  I don’t think we have all the play as Shakespeare wrote it.  It is much shorter than any of the other tragedies, in fact I’ve seen it played without an interval in just over two hours. The only text we have is that which is in the First Folio and I suspect that all Heminges and Condell had to work with was what we would call a prompt copy, cut down to fit ‘the two hour traffic of our stage’.  By-laws meant that performances had to be over by a certain time and a four hour version of Shakespeare’s latest opus just wasn’t going to cut it. This, I think, is the reason that Macbeth as a character is so hard to make work psychologically.  He’s lost a lot of the stages in his downward spiral. What Burbage thought of having his part slashed like that, goodness only knows. Certainly, although I must have seen upwards of a dozen productions, I have only seen one that I thought successful; that was Trevor Nunn’s staging with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench and that only worked when it was in the confined area of The Other Place where a sense of claustrophobic evil could be built up.  Moved into the Main House it lost all its power. So, I have been ploughing my way through the play this week and trying, without much success, to drum up some enthusiasm for the on-line discussion that is part of the course.  Fortunately, the other plays involved are all favourites: Twelfth Night, Henry V, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale.

All this Bardolodry has severely cut into my reading time and so the only book that I’ve completed has been Olivia Isaac-Henry’s Someone You Know, which I reviewed earlier in the week.  I’m not a thriller reader at the best of times and I don’t think that this is the best of times.  The thriller is the ‘in’ genre at the moment and as a result I rather think publishers are taking on board novels that they might otherwise have had second thoughts about. While Someone You Know is not by any means a bad book, I’m not sure it would have stuck out enough to attract attention if there weren’t a demand for this type of novel and to be honest I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t had a personal connection to the author.  I am not looking forward to my next meeting with one of the book’s dedicatees.

I do like police procedurals’ however and the more so when they are as well written as those by James Oswald.  I’ve just started the ninth in his Edinburgh series, Cold As The Grave and once I’ve whipped round everyone else’s blogs to see what they are up to I’m going to spend the rest of this wild Sunday curled up in my chair and being suitable scared by the wicked Jane Louise Dee who is back in harness again proving that unfortunately real evil is unlikely ever to be completely defeated.  I wonder if she was one of the original wyrd sisters?

Then it’s back to Shakespeare, not only for another week of Macbeth but also for a dose of The Tempest via Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed, her retelling of the play for the Hogarth series.  This is my next book group choice and if I’m honest, not one I’m looking forward to.  I have a fundamental problem with trying to rewrite Shakespeare in this way and although I know that this is reckoned to be the best of those so far published I am still very uneasy about the project.  I’m also not really a great fan of Atwood.  Oh well, maybe this will be the book that will convince me I am wrong about both Hogarth’s endeavours and the author.  Or maybe not!

Sunday Retrospective ~ January 20th 2019

Where Are They Now?

I don’t know about you, but when I’m ill I really don’t want to be reading anything new.  This is the time when I search the bookshelves for something that has given me pleasure in the past and wallow in a surfeit of re-reading.  And, that is precisely what I’ve been indulging in over the past couple of weeks while recovering from the dreaded lurgy. While I was really ill I stuck to books that I know so well I can practically recite them. 84 Charing Cross Road is a particular favourite. (Not books, I know, but never go to a production of Twelfth Night or As You Like It with me. I have been known to prompt from the audience, and woe betide a director who decides to cut any of my favourite lines.  I’m likely to demand an explanation there and then having supplied the missing iambic pentameters myself!)  Once on the mend, however, I searched through the available volumes and alighted on the two police procedural novels centred on war veteran Joseph Stark and written by Matthew Frank, If I Should Die and Between the Crosses, published in 2014 and 2016 respectively.  I don’t know about the later book, but the first of these definitely won awards and rightly so.  I read it at the latter end of 2015 and it was definitely one of my books of the year.  What is more, it bore a re-read and that isn’t always true of a book where plot and carefully placed reveals are essential to its success. But, for the last two and half years, silence.  Frank’s name is on a list I keep of authors to check off against forthcoming publications but at the moment I wait in vain.

Another such series that appears to have run into the buffers after only two instalments is that by Rob McCarthy focussing on one Dr Harry Kent, the first of which, The Hollow Men, was nominated for the Betty Trask first novel award.  I’m not certain what won that year, but it must have been pretty good to beat this, also a crime novel centred around the problems that veterans have returning to civilian life.  In this instance the main character is a doctor who has taken up a post in the NHS but who also serves as a police surgeon with the Metropolitan Police. McCarthy is particularly good at describing the temptations for anyone in the medical profession to self medicate rather than admitting to what they see as failure to adapt to life out of uniform.  To be fair, the second novel, A Handful of Ashes, was a 2017 publication, but there is no sign of a third.

Where are you both now? I ask.  And more to the point when are your books number three on the way?

Tell me, am I the only reader to get impatient in this way or are their authors whose next works you feel are becoming overdue?

 

Sweet Little Lies ~ Caz Frear

I am now back reading new fiction and this week picked up a first novel by Caz Frear, Sweet Little Lies.  This is also a police procedural set in London and featuring DC Cat Kinsella, a member of the Murder Squad, although perhaps not for much longer, given her boss’s concern about the effect her last case has had on her.  Cat, desperate to stay in the squad, is horrified then when the next major investigation turns out to have connections not only to her past, but more specifically to her current family dynamics. She ought to declare an interest and excuse herself from the inquiry, but both her precarious hold on her posting and the fact that a twenty year old personal mystery may at last be about to be solved keep her quiet and she continues to work the case knowing that at any moment she could be found out and face disciplinary procedures.

Both Cat’s story and the investigation centre on the way in which the sins of the father can be seen to blight the lives of their children.  Frear also reminds us that while the horrors of the Magdelene Laundries might be behind us there are still people are more than willing to exploit young women who find themselves pregnant and without any form of family support.  The story she tells is at times horrific, but unfortunately never pushes the bounds of believability.

I thought this was a well plotted first novel with some excellent characters.  I particularly liked the fact that all the police were decent human beings who deserved the ranks to which they had risen.  I am a little tired of police procedurals where squads are full of first class rotters who in many instances are as bad as the people they are pursuing.  Yes, I know that can happen.  I lived in the West Midlands through the 1970s, 80s and 90s; there is nothing you can tell me about police corruption.  Nevertheless, the bullying DCI has become something of a cliché and I was glad not to have to deal with one here.  I shall definitely be reading the second instalment, Stone Cold Heart, when it comes out later this year.  Please Ms Frear, don’t then make me wait for years for episode three.

 

Sunday Retrospective ~ December 23rd 2018

For many people, Christmas preparations will have meant that precious little reading will have been done this past week.  For me, however, the opposite is true.  As we get ever closer to the 25th, keeping to my routine becomes more and more difficult and, as we approach the two week shutdown that seems latterly to have become accepted in the U.K., my tension levels rise daily.  If you have Aspergers, Christmas is an absolute nightmare and now that I no longer have immediate family to consider my way of coping is to bury myself even deeper than usual in narrative in all its forms.  Surviving the next two weeks will be dependent on having enough books, audio files and box sets to keep me so engrossed that I don’t notice how disrupted my world has become.  So, this week I have read Anne Youngson’s Costa nominated Meet Me At The Museum as well as  re-reading the two most recent episodes in Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series.  When I am feeling unsettled for any reason returning to favourite characters is always a good strategy, I find.

I wrote on Wednesday about how much I was enjoying Meet Me At The Museum, which I thought was far better than some of the more scathing reviews I’d come across.  As I finished it on Friday I saw no reason to change my mind.  This epistolary novel charts the growing friendship between two people in middle age, one, Tina, a farmer’s wife from East Anglia and the other, Anders, a curator at a Danish museum which houses the peat preserved body of Tollund Man.  For both, the correspondence opens up new ways of looking at the world and their letters become a conduit through which they explore their thoughts concerning the lives they have lived and are living now.  How did each of them come to their present situation? Are their current modes of existence any longer sustainable?  I found their ‘conversations’ made me think as well, especially about the importance of story and how, in one way or another, the stories a society tells about itself come to be acted out as ritual and in some instances as sacrifices.  Tollund Man has almost certainly been one such sacrifice but, as Tina gradually comes to realise, she too has sacrificed the life she could have had to fulfil the role her own society expected her to play.

 We should look inside ourselves for fulfilment. It is not fair to burden children or grandchildren with the obligation to make us whole

I went back to Jane Casey’s last two novels, After the Fire and Let the Dead Speak when I realised that we haven’t had a new Maeve Kerrigan book this year.  I knew I was feeling deprived for some reason.  For me, Casey is one of the very best crime fiction writers about at the moment. However, reading these back to back was interesting because I hadn’t realised until I did that that there are one or two gaps in the continuing story that runs under the individual crimes. This doesn’t diminish the separate novels in any way at all, but as a nosy reader I would like to know, for instance what happened when Chris Swain came up in court. Perhaps the two short stories we’ve been promised might fill in some of the gaps.

Then, last night I started on the books I’ve been keeping to one side precisely for this Christmas period.  First on the list is Frances Brody’s most recent Kate Shackleton mystery, A Snapshot of Murder.  I always enjoy these novels, mainly because they are set in a part of the country I know well.  To follow this I have forthcoming books by James Oswald, Dervla McTiernan, Kate London and Helen Fields as well as recently published novels by Tana French and this year’s great discovery, Mike Craven.  What I don’t have is a pre-publication copy of the new Ruth Galloway mystery.  Elly Griffiths’ publishers usually offer this on NetGalley in time for the holiday, but this year not so.  Never mind, it will be there to look forward to in February.  What I will have for Christmas Day itself is the new Chronicle of St Mary’s short story, traditionally published for Kindle on the very day. Christmas simply wouldn’t be Christmas without the annual unsanctioned (if not entirely illegal) jump into the past by Max, Peterson and Markham.  The Bears and I will read it over breakfast on Tuesday morning, knowing that, at the very least, a smile on all our faces is guaranteed.