Review: The Year of Lear

the-year-of-lear-9781416541653_hrSo December is when people will think back on the year that is soon to be past, and they will think about what they accomplished.  Most people wish they had done more.  If you think you did a lot, consider this.

In 1606, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra.

So no, you didn’t do a lot.

That’s quite a year for someone to have.  Honestly, that’s a lifetime of creative output for most artists and it happened in one year.

I’ve posted a couple of times about The Year of Lear by James Shapiro, but I do want to do a summary/review.

It’s a really good book, for two reasons.

First, it delves into the detail and the context that the plays came out of.  This was a tumultuous time, from the Gunpowder Plot in late 1605 (see Guy Fawkes) to the plague to King James seeking to unify Britain to horrifying repression of Catholics, some of which appeared to even reach Shakespeare’s family.

So, as a study of literature as an artifact of its time, this book succeeds.  As I mentioned previously, you don’t get this when you study Shakespeare in school.  Shapiro does a great job of delving into the actual texts of these plays to show not just the themes they explored but also the inside jokes buried inside of them–little cultural references and snippets of familiar language that would have delighted his audiences.

The cover, in fact, is a picture of prisoners being dragged to a gallows where an apparent drawing and quartering is scheduled.

The key point is that great art rarely comes out of peaceful times, just as great art rarely comes out of sanguine people.  Chaos makes us question, and when we question the lives we lead–and the question of our basic humanity, as they had to have been doing in this time–we make great art.

You don’t make great art in cruise control.  It comes from troubled minds.

Second, the book succeeds a primer to great storytelling, which I suspect it did not intend to be.  We were taught in school that Shakespeare used old stories as the basis for his plays, but Shapiro puts us inside that process.  He shows us what Shakespeare started with and then how he adapted the stories to tell the story he wanted to tell and how sometimes that process can be seen in individual passages, like the fossil of a bug in a piece of rock.

This source material includes King Leir, an old play, Plutarch for Anthony and Cleopatra and Holinshed’s Chronicles for Macbeth.  In each case, he relied heavily on source documents but did not let them stifle the storytelling process.  As it has been said, “research can kill a novel.”

The borrowing casts an interesting light on current teaching:

Students are taught to be original and where authors who borrow can end up being labelled a plagiarizer.

Students are also taught not to use too much timely language or jargon, but note this:

Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written not for posterity but for contemporaries like Matthew Banks and his fellow carpenters, playgoers drawn to a post–Gunpowder Plot tragedy…

So there.

Lastly, there are certainly parallels to our time, which is actually far kinder and safer than 1606, but we still have ample opportunities to understand that humans have a good side and an awful side.

A Crazy Kind of Love by Mary Ann Marlowe

crazy kind of loveThe story focuses on Josie who is a paparazza for an online gossip magazine. I liked that this was from a different perspective. I definitely  haven’t read any books from the paparazza’s point-of-view.

This a romance novel. But it definitely feels a bit more hearty than just that. Or at least it did for me. I think that Josie’s story had a lot of depth. She definitely isn’t a one dimensional character. Sometimes in romance-y novels the tension feels forced, it does not in this case. The nature of Jo’s job (paparazza) and her romantic interest, Micah, who happens to be a celebrity feels natural and has inherent tension to it.

I didn’t know that this is the second in a series until after I finished the book. Obviously I didn’t read the previous book, and I don’t think I missed out. I definitely could follow along with the story. I don’t think you need to read the first one to enjoy this book. (Although I definitely want to go back and read the first one!)

I really enjoyed this book. I would totally recommend this if you are a looking for a romance-y read with a little depth. I am being purposefully vague on the details of the story because I don’t want to spoil it for you. The story is engaging and interesting. Although you kinda sorta know how it is going to end (as you do in a romance-y type story) it is a fun ride to the end of the story.

I rated this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley and Kensington Publishing!)




Moonlight Over Manhattan by Sarah Morgan

moonlightI have not read any other books by Sarah Morgan, but I am so glad I read this one. (This is the  6th book in the From Manhattan with Love series). It was a delightful read.

This book is about Harriet, a dog walker who is shy and introverted (I can relate!) and she has implemented “Challenge Harriet” project to try and break out of her shell: doing one thing a day that is outside of her comfort zone. Through this process we find out about her past and her family in a very touching way.

If you have read this genre before, it is evident early on in the book (around the second chapter) that the story will also be about the relationship between Harriet and the handsome doctor who treats her ankle (that she hurts while escaping from an ill-fated internet date).

The relationship could have felt contrived, but the author did a great job in not making it seem natural. The conflicting feelings of the characters felt real. I definitely got invested in the characters and was rooting for them.

The thing I really liked about this book is that the characters had history, especially Harriet. We learn about those and the struggles she has had to overcome. This wasn’t done in a maudlin or tragic way, and it really helped me to ‘buy in’ to the story.

If you enjoy romance stories, (and dogs!) then this is a book for you. If you have read any of the author’s other books, you know the charm of her writing. If you haven’t read any of the others in this series, you could definitely start with this one (and not feel lost)!

I rated this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)



Once There Was a Way: What If The Beatles Stayed Together, by Bryce Zabel

beatlesI am a music fan. Especially “older” music. While my fellow high schoolers were fan zoning about Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club (I mean, I liked those too), my favourite band was The Beach Boys. The same friend that went to Beach Boys concerts with me, also sat with me in her parents basement while we listened to (and sang along with) Beatles records.  I have been a fan of the Beatles for a long time.

When I came across this book that asks the question: what if The Beatles stayed together? I had to read it.

I quickly got sucked in to this story. It was so well written. The slant is that it’s written by a music magazine and it has that vibe. It’s like you are reading an extended Rolling Stone article. The attention to detail is amazing and the way the author weaves in truth and fiction is remarkable. There were times when I was like, wait…did that happen or did he make it up? And then Googled it. (It was a 50/50 split on made up vs. real.) I do appreciate the end chapter where the author clarifies which big plot points are real and not, and why he chose the paths he did.

The thing that I was the most curious about was how the author was going to deal with John Lennon and George Harrison’s deaths. I won’t spoil it for you, but I do think he did a good job of dealing with both situations.

There was a point in the book where I got a bit emotional, which I was surprised at. I can’t reveal what exactly it was, because I don’t want to include spoilers. I think that part of my reaction was melancholy over what could have been.

Whether I agree with all of the alternate history points that the author chose or not is beside the point. Part of the fun in reading the book (and I am assuming writing it) is to imagine all the cause and effect and (mostly) infinite possibilities that could exist. It’s like the butterfly effect – a small change in the early days, morph into these larger changes later.

If you are a Beatles fan or a music fan, I would highly recommend this book. It is engaging, interesting and thought provoking.

I rated this book 5/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

Campaign Widows by Aimee Agresti

campaign widowsThis book was advertised as Sex and the City meets The West Wing. Two of my favourite shows! So this was a no-brainer for me to read it.

The story is about a group of unlikely friends, who have significant others that are connected with a presidential campaign. (Fictional, of course!) It’s an interesting perspective on the ‘other side’ of the campaigning and planning for an election. As someone whose husband works on political campaigns, I can totally relate. (Although my scope is on a much smaller scale than in the book.)

My interest in the book started as purely sensationalist, as in what kind of dirt will be dished out. But the author did a great job in developing the characters, and by the end of the book I was definitely invested in their lives and really cared about them. Basically I didn’t want to book to end.

I also liked the fact that the characters were all from different perspectives, and were affected differently by political life. Making the point that ‘campaign widows’ aren’t just the wives (or husbands!) of the people running, they are the spouses of the press that follows the campaign, or the people that work on a campaign.

This was a really interesting read: great story, great characters. I would highly recommend this one!

I rated this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)



Review: Strangers in Budapest

strangers in budapestSo, yeah.  This is a little awkward.

This review is of Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener.  Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

So, fair and honest it will be.

I didn’t like this book very much.  I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads.  I see that others liked it quite a bit and I respect that and I’m not going to trash it, but I just didn’t like it very much at all.  I’m not someone who goes to a restaurant looking for things to nitpik.  I want to be pleased.  I just wasn’t.

To work on the positive side, the book did eventually work itself up to a dramatic conclusion which was good to read.

Beyond that, though, I just found the storytelling incredibly stilted and awkward.

For example, the following construction occurs over and over in the book:

“You’re a man of questions this morning,” Bernardo said to Will, obviously enjoying Will’s interrogations.

First, that’s an awkward way for someone to talk, but the tag on the end is just very difficult for a reader, in my opinion.  It separates the reader from the story and the action.  I just think it would be stronger if it actually was obvious, as opposed to having it explained.  And, this construction is used over and over in the book.

Second, people who have commented about the book feel like Budapest became a character in the book.  That was clearly the objective–to portray it as a kind of inscrutable city with a lot of secrets and a dark, hidden side.  Having said that, while I understood that was the idea, I never really felt it.  I read Leaving Berlin recently, and that book captured a city way better than this one did, as did Gentlemen in Moscow.

Also, all the dark actions taken were taken by Americans living in Budapest, so maybe it isn’t Budapest that was dark.

Speaking of which, there’s an overly broad scene where American women who live in Budapest talk just the way you’d expect them to.

And, at one point, a main character–an American–talks about Budapest like he ate a Wikipedia entry about the city.  And a chain-smoking “escort” is thrown into the story for no apparent reason.

Anyway, other people have enjoyed this book.  I wasn’t one of them, but people’s views can vary.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

young jane youngI picked this book up at my favourite used bookstore. I was on the hunt for Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Found the book I went in for and then….you know what happens next…I’ll just take a look around….

I thought it had a really interesting premise: intern has an affair with a married congressman (where have we heard that before?) and re-invents herself. Since I was ‘saving money’ on getting the Ishiguro book used, why not buy it?

I really liked this book. It is smart and funny.

I have written previously that my favourite book is The Sound and the Fury – this has a similar structure to it. There are 5 parts to the book and each one is written from a different character’s perspective and in their voice. After I read the first part, I was thinking, how is she going to sustain the narrative for 300 pages? Then I started the next section and went – right! This is how.

Each part really feels like it is in a different voice. She employs different structures in each one to give it a totally unique feel – one has short chapters, one is one long chapter, one is a series of emails, etc. I thought that was really clever. It made the book feel fresh even though the same story was being (kinda) told over and over.

There is obviously some broader themes that need to be addressed if you take on this story: slut-shaming, feminism, right to privacy. I think these were handled well and never in a heavy-handed way.

If you are looking for a book that is smart and funny (I LOL’d in many spots) then I would highly recommend this book.

I rated it 4/5 on Goodreads.