Tag Archives: shakespeare

Book review: New Boy

Tracy ChevalierWhen she arrives at school one day, Dee notices the new boy before anyone else and forsees he will have an impact on the world she lives in. Little does she know. This is Washington DC in the 1970s. A new black boy is starting his first day at an all-white school. New Boy: Othello Retold is not the usual novel you expect from Tracy Chevalier. Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection of novels by contemporary writers re-telling Shakespeare’s most famous plays, it is thought-provoking, ambitious, but not totally successful.

Modernising such a well-known classic drama is always going to be problematic, with readers who love or hate it. Othello, possibly Shakespeare’s most political of plays, is about love, jealousy, sexual bullying and manipulation. Difficult subjects for a school. Some reviewers think this book should be marketed to adolescents but for me, the novel’s flaw lies in its timeframe. The action takes place over one school day so the arrival of Osei and his relationship with Dee charges from flirting, friendship, commitment to caressing, whispering and hurtful jealousy between the hours of nine in the morning and four-ish in the afternoon. There is simply too much to cram into one day. I had less of a problem with the arc from flirting to jealousy, remembering the intense emotions of being pre-adolescent. However my perception of the world in which the story is set was not helped as, being English, I wasn’t aware that the top year of grade school means Dee, Osei, Ian and Mimi are 11-years old. I thought they were older.

How different it would have been to set it across Osei’s first week at school, allowing space for each character to be explored. The nastiness of bully Ian could be explored in depth, instead of passing references to his brothers whose examples of extortion he imitates, and his father who beats Ian for swearing. ‘His father had taken his belt to him early on to make clear that swearing was his domain, not his son’s.’ There is a deeper tale of manipulation & bullying trying to get out. But New Boy is shorter, at 192 pages, compared with Chevalier’s most recent novels – At the Edge of the Orchard, 305 pages; The Last Runaway, 353 pages – so no wonder the story feels constricted.

Read my reviews of At the Edge of the Orchard and The Last Runaway. Tracy Chevalier writes about how different it felt to write New Boy, compared with her usual historical subjects, here.

If you like this, try:-
‘Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold’ by Anne Tyler [also part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series]
‘Foxlowe’ by Eleanor Wasserberg
‘The Lightning Tree’ By Emily Woof

‘New Boy: Othello Retold’ by Tracy Chevalier [UK: Hogarth] Buy now

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Book review: Vinegar Girl [The Taming of the Shrew Retold]

Anne TylerI love Anne Tyler’s writing. It is so simple and under-stated. She lets you slip so easily into the head and the world of her characters. This is her re-working of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Generally I dislike these artificial re-writes, but I made an exception for Tyler. After this, I may try some of the others.

Kate is a pre-school teaching assistant and housekeeper for her distracted scientist father and teenage sister. She is dissatisfied with her life, can never seem to get things right, but doesn’t know how to change things. Admonished by her headmistress for being too frank with her young charges, she is not in the best of moods when her father introduces her to his lab assistant, Pytor. He seems a lumbering foreigner and Kate does not understand her father’s eagerness that they meet. Pytor has a problem, his work visa is about to expire and he must leave the country. Kate’s father is frantic, he simply cannot lose his irreplaceable assistant or his research project into autoimmune disorders will fail when it is so near success. What happens next is predictable except Tyler turns Shakespeare’s tale of Katherina and Petruchio into a modern tale about tolerance and freedom, without the overtones of ‘man tames untameable woman’.

Read my review of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

If you like ‘Vinegar Girl’, try these other American novels about family:-
‘Some Luck’ by Jane Smiley
‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler [UK: Penguin Modern Classics] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: Dark Aemilia

Sally O’ReillyShakespeare, tick. Possible identity of the Dark Lady, tick. Supernatural, witches and demons, tick. Stinking, plague-ridden London, tick. The Globe, white-faced boy actors dressed in velvet, smoke, whistles and special effects, tick. This is Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly.

Based on a foundation of history, O’Reilly tells the fictional story of real-life Aemilia Bassano and her love affair with William Shakespeare. There is no documentary evidence that this affair took place, but O’Reilly’s imagination conjures a rich story in which the setting of Elizabethan London is vibrant and believable. Wherever Aemilia goes – in an apothecary’s shop, in the audience at The Globe or standing at the edge of a plague pit – you can see, smell and hear her London.

Aemilia is something of a feminist, in that she struggles against men her whole life for the freedom to live her own life. Orphaned at 12 she becomes mistress to Lord Hunsdon [readers of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl will be interested to know that Hunsdon was the real-life Henry, son of Mary Boleyn] but during an affair with Shakespeare, Aemilia falls pregnant. Hunsdon arranges a marriage for her to her cousin Alfonso Lanyer, and so Aemilia’s destiny is determined at each stage by men. Father, protector, husband, lover and son.

She is a fascinating character, a woman of her time or before her time? As a poet and a lover, her influence on Shakespeare is at the core of this book. But then with her son dying of the plague, she turns to witchcraft and so the wilder element of the story takes off. I admit to skipping some of these sections. For me, the interesting plot was Aemilia, Shakespeare, the Globe and the writing of Macbeth and consequently for me the book could have been shorter.

Click here for more about Sally O’Reilly’s thoughts on how to survive being a writer.

If you like this, try these other novels of the supernatural:-
‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen
‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ by Kate Mosse
‘The Faerie Tree’ by Jane Cable

‘Dark Aemilia’ by Sally O’Reilly [UK: Myriad] Buy here

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
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