Six Degrees of Separation – From O’Farrell to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before. This month’s starting book is…

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child. Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

All the glowing reviews of this have tempted me to read it, but I believe it’s present tense (ugh!) and for some unaccountable and pretentious reason O’Farrell has chosen to refer to Anne Hathaway as Agnes, which would irritate me profoundly every time she was mentioned. In my first choice of books, she’s Anne…

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan. Shakespeare may get the title billing, and I loved his story as imagined by Morgan, but for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. Will says:

‘You made Will Shakespeare, Anne. And without you there wouldn’t be a life, but the unformed shape of one, never to be.’ 

And such is Jude Morgan’s skill that this reader believed this completely.

Morgan introduces us to Shakespeare’s theatre friends and rivals, including Kit Marlowe, who stars in my next choice…

Crimson Rose by MJ Trow. It’s the opening night of Marlowe’s new play Tamburlaine Part 2 at the Rose Theatre and everyone is expecting it to be spectacular, especially the bit where they shoot the Governor. But as the guns go off, screams are heard from the audience and a woman falls dead, shot through the neck. This is a clever and funny mystery where Shakespeare is shown as a kind of hick just up from the country, while Marlowe is a 16th century James Bond. Great fun, especially the interactions among the theatre company.

More theatrical fun in my third book…

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. I adore the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon…?

.‘May I ask how old she is?’ inquired Nicholas.
….‘You may, sir,’ replied Mr Crummles, looking steadily in his questioner’s face, as some men do when they have doubts about being implicitly believed in what they are going to say. ‘She is ten years of age, sir.’
….‘Not more!’
….‘Not a day.’
….‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas, ‘it’s extraordinary.’
….It was; for the infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age–not perhaps to the full extent of the memory of the oldest inhabitant, but certainly for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps this system of training had produced in the infant phenomenon these additional phenomena.

Moving away from fiction but staying with Dickens and the stage takes me to…

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow. A superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Simon Callow as Dickens

Simon Callow has often performed as Dickens, and he also appeared in the film Shakespeare In Love, set during the period when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet. My next choice is set in that same period, though that’s where the resemblance ends!

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell. A new playhouse is opening in London and the owners are determined to make it a huge success. Actors are easy to get hold of but new plays are the magic that bring in the playgoers. Over at the Theatre, Richard Shakespeare is struggling to survive on the measly wages he receives. He’s getting too old to play women’s roles and his older brother Will won’t promise him roles playing men. He seems like the perfect target for the new playhouse – offer him regular well-paid work and perhaps he’d be willing to steal the two new scripts Will is working on – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. This is a light-hearted historical mystery, which may not be one for purists but gives a great depiction of how theatre operated in Shakespeare’s day.

Shakespeare wrote some pretty good plays, but I feel his main claim to fame is as the creator of the fretful porpentine, our very own star of Tuesday Terror! The porpy, who rather neatly comes from Hamlet, also turns up in my last book…

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse. With sundered hearts all over the place, drunken uncles dressed in Sindbad costumes and pestilential Boy Scouts to deal with, it’s surprising that Bertie and Jeeves have time for a little literary discussion…

….Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

* * * * *

So from O’Farrell to Wodehouse via Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, theatricals, Dickens, Simon Callow, and the fretful porpentine.

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JUNE

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite June reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

The BlackhouseI’ve been a long-term fan of Peter May’s since back in his China Thrillers days, but I felt that with the Lewis Trilogy he took a real step up to take his place as one of the very top crime writers in Britain today. The Blackhouse is the first book in the trilogy introducing us to DS Fin MacLeod, who is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. Returning home after 20 years away, Fin is thrown into remembering and re-assessing his difficult childhood and adolescence. The book alternates between the present day and Fin’s past and it gradually emerges that the shadow of that past may be involved in the current investigation. This was one of the earlier examples of the double timeline that has now become almost obligatory in crime fiction, but it’s done much better than most, with both the current story and the past equally strong and coming together to a dark but satisfying conclusion. And the rest of the trilogy is even better…

 

2012

 

secret life of william shakespeareThis is a beautifully written novel, each word carefully crafted to draw the reader in to a world full of poetry and drama. Morgan fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life by creating a character who is completely convincing and compelling – a man who questions his own existence except as he lives through his work. But much though I loved the story of Shakespeare and his London life, for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne Hathaway – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. We see Anne grow and develop as she tries to reconcile her pride in Will’s accomplishments with her sense of abandonment. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness.

 

2013

 

feral“Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”

This book is a call for us to step back from nature conservation as we know it and give nature space to recover on her own. Monbiot suggests that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer, but for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators we have driven to extinction in our islands. A cogently argued and inspiring book that made me look with fresh eyes at what our landscape has become, and imagine what it could be if we have the courage to hand back the controls to nature herself. Although he talks specifically about the UK, much of what he says is relevant to the whole ‘first world’.

 

2014

 

oxcrimesYou only have to look at the cover of this book to see some of the huge names who have contributed stories to this anthology in aid of Oxfam. In total, there are twenty-seven stories, most of them original, and the overall quality is exceptionally high. There are a few that are really quite short, but most of them are pretty substantial and a few of them star the detective for whom the author is famous. As well as straightforward crime/detection, there are examples of both horror and sci-fi with a crime element, and black humour puts in more than one appearance. Anthony Horowitz, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Neil Gaiman, Mark Billingham, Peter James… need I say more? To be honest, you’d need to be pretty much impossible to please if you didn’t enjoy at least some of these stories. Imaginative tales and great writing from top authors – the fact that it’s for a good cause is just an added bonus.

 

2015

 

the grapes of wrathFirst published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Starkly political, overly polemical, emotionally manipulative and tending towards bathos… but also hugely powerful, brilliantly written, immensely moving and just as relevant to today as to the time of writing. I can’t remember the last time a book made me this angry, both at the subject matter and at the author’s manipulation of the reader. Made me think, made me cry, made me want to throw my Kindle at the wall, bored me silly at some points, and left me so enraged it took me weeks to be able to write a (reasonably) coherent review. Not an easy read, or an enjoyable one… but a book that deserves to be read.

 * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for June, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

secret life of william shakespeare‘…And all the men and women merely players’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

If you’re going to write a book about one of the greatest writers of all time, then you need your own writing skill to be able to stand the inevitable comparisons. Jude Morgan’s does. This is a beautifully written novel, each word carefully crafted to draw the reader in to a world full of poetry and drama.

The King's Men (internetshakespeare.uvic.ca)
The King’s Men
(internetshakespeare.uvic.ca)

Morgan fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life by creating a character who is completely convincing and compelling – a man who questions his own existence except as he lives through his work. Morgan broadens out the tale to allow us to meet some of the other greats of Elizabethan drama, – Marlowe, Jonson etc – painting a picture of how the competition amongst these men drove each to strive for ever greater heights. We are shown how patronage and the Court influenced the dramatists and poets of the day, but we also see the other side of London – the constant fear of plague resulting in regular closure of the theatres, the uncertainty and often poverty of the players’ lives, the need to please both masters and audience. All this gives a real insight into the development of Shakespeare’s writing, but the author wears his research lightly and weaves his knowledge seamlessly into the story.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage (wikipedia)
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
(wikipedia)

But much though I loved the story of Shakespeare and his London life, for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. Through her we see the contrasting life of small town Stratford, still very rural, where everyone knows their neighbours and family is everything. We see Anne grow and develop as she tries to reconcile her pride in Will’s accomplishments with her sense of abandonment. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. Will says ‘You made Will Shakespeare, Anne. And without you there wouldn’t be a life, but the unformed shape of one, never to be.’ And such is Jude Morgan’s skill that this reader believed this completely.

Anne and Will (www.konokene.com)
Anne and Will
(www.konokene.com)

A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness. Highly recommended.

I was originally inspired to read this by this review from one of my favourite Amazon, and now bloggy, reviewers, Lady Fancifull.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link