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25 November 2015

Review: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

A Play

Depending on which conspiracy theory you follow, William Shakespeare is either the most brilliant and influential playwright England has ever seen, or William Shakespeare never existed (or was an actor with little talent) and the plays were penned by Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, or any one of a number of other possible candidates (although no women, as far as I could tell).

The whole debate probably isn’t important: what’s important is that we have the plays, they are considered culturally and historically significant, and they have been used as instruments of torture for generations of schoolchildren the world over (and it's all Blackadder's fault).

I can remember studying Othello, and I know I studied at least one other, but I can’t remember which. I do remember thinking Shakespeare wasn’t as bad as people made out.

Then I attended excellent outdoor Shakespeare performances in Greenwich Park in London, and watched Clare Danes and Leonardo diCaprio fall in love in Romeo and Juliet on film. Shakespeare was great—good plots, great characters, plenty of pace and action, and even some humour.

Then I read Romeo and Juliet. Well, the play hasn’t changed in the almost-twenty years since the movie came out . . . but it’s almost unreadable. Yes, there are flashes of humour, but there is also too much time devoted to minor characters, and all the characters are far too prone to unnecessary unintelligible speechifying. It reminds me why I don’t read the 1611 version of the King James Bible (actually, almost no one does. They might think they’re reading the ‘original’ KJV, but most of them are reading the 1769 version).

Overall, I think plays were made to be watched, not read.

This counts towards my 2105 Reading Challenge as a play. Yes, it’s a little predictable and I should have chosen something more contemporary.

23 November 2015

Review: Emergency Response by Nicki Edwards

Enjoyable Australian Medical Romance

Amazon Description

Intensive care nurse Mackenzie Jones is no stranger to running. As a teenager she fled her family home, leaving tragedy and loss in her wake. Now, after fifteen years alone in Sydney, with the strain of working in a city hospital wearing her thin, she's tempted to run again.

Mackenzie jumps at the chance to work in a mining town in the Western Australian desert – anything to lift her spirits. Though she barely dares to hope, she wonders if she might find the kind of love that can ease her loneliness.

In the outback, Nathan Kennedy is at a loose end. He's been making money in the mines for years, and pressure from his family to return to the east coast, settle down and get married is reaching fever pitch. The problem is, he hasn't met the right woman.

When Mackenzie turns up in town, there's an instant attraction between her and Nathan, maybe even true love. But tragedy's not done with Mackenzie Jones – the past is about to catch up with her in more ways than one.

Can Nathan convince Mackenzie to stop running, or is this just another tragedy in the making?

My Review

Mackenzie Jones meets the handsome Nathan Kennedy at a wedding, then finds herself on the other side of the country, but working in the same tiny rural town as Nathan. They start seeing each other, but the relationship is cut short when Mackenzie is called back home—her estranged father is dying, and as the oldest child, the unattached child, and the nurse in the family, he becomes her unwelcome responsibility.

The writing was very good. There were some intentionally humorous lines (“she’s got a better backside than Pippa Middleton”) and some I found funny even though they weren’t intended to be (“she had a strong New Zealand accent”. Really. Have these Aussies ever listened to themselves?).

And one part of the story was unexpectedly poignant—a visit to the degazettted town of Wittenoom, site of the blue asbestos mine made famous (to me, at least) by Midnight Oil and their song, Blue Sky Mining. That’s not for the faint-hearted.

Although Nicki Edwards is a Christian, Emergency Response isn’t Christian fiction. This means there is some content you wouldn’t normally see in a Christian novel (e.g. consumption of alcohol), but it is still classified as a “clean read”. Well, except for the blood. But I guess a little blood is to be expected with a medical romance set in rural Australia. Recommended. As long as you don’t mind the blood.

Thanks to Momentum Books and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

20 November 2015

Review: A Fair to Remember by Suzie Johnson

Excellent Historical Suspense!

Amazon Description

Clara Lambert attended the Pan-American Exposition as a Kodak girl, never dreaming that she would end up photographing the attempted assassination of President McKinley.

James Brinton, a disgraced police officer now working security at the Expo, wants only to redeem his good name…and perhaps earn a new position with the president’s security.

When Clara is accused of being involved in the assassination attempt, James has to put aside his own ambitions to try to prove the innocence of the young woman who has captured his heart as surely as her camera captures the world before its lens.

But in the face of investigations, arrests, and mounting danger, they must do the hardest thing that could be asked: forgive.

My Review

At first I thought A Fair to Remember was going to be about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, but it was actually about the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Clara, our heroine, was a Kodak Girl recruited by Mr Eastman to take snapshots of visitors to the fair. Eastman apparently hired young women to show people how easy it was to use a Kodak cameras—so easy, even a woman could use it (yes, more than a little sexist in hindsight, but an accurate reflection of attitudes towards women in the 20th century).

A Fair to Remember starts with the shooting of President McKinley. I’m not American, so I didn't know whether McKinley would live or die, and this added suspense for me (but I hope all Americans know the answer!). Clara is present, and takes several photos before and after the shooting, and the police want to take the camera and the film into evidence. Unfortunately, it appears not only the police think Clara might have captured something important on film, as Clara soon finds herself and her camera targeted by unknown assailants. Fortunately, police officer James Brinton is there to protect her.

I think the romance moved a little too fast. The whole story took place over only a few days, and it seemed a little unlikely that James and Clara would declare their undying love for each other in such a short space of time, and there were times when I got frustrated with James for hiding things that need not have been hidden. These small deficiencies were more than made up for by the strength of the suspense plot, which was a full-on chase, more reminiscent of a James Bond movie than historical fiction, and made even more fast-paced and suspenseful by the fact someone seems to know James and Clara’s every move, and be one step ahead . . .

The writing was excellent, the cover is beautiful, and I look forward to whatever Suzie Johnson writes next! Recommended.

Thanks to the author for providing a free ebook for review.

18 November 2015

Review: The Dubliners by James Joyce

A Book I Didn’t Read in School

I loved reading even as a child, and I always read all the books I was supposed to read in school, so this challenge was always going to be difficult.

In my first year of university, I signed up to English 101, Twentieth Century Literature. But I missed the first week of classes, which was when we were supposed to have read the first assigned book: Dubliners, which is a short story collection based in Dublin, and is set in the early years of the twentieth century (which was why it was the first book on the class reading list).

I made it to the second lecture, and all I can remember is the lecturer talking about Ulysses—apparently some of the characters in The Dubliners also feature in Ulysses (which I also haven't read). The result was the lecture made no sense to me, and I wasn't at all motivated to rush out, buy and read Dubliners.

Anyway, now I have read The Dubliners, and all I can say is I didn’t miss much. I’ve never been a fan of cliffhanger endings, and it seemed like all these stories ended just when they were starting to get interesting. Too many of the stories didn’t have a satisfactory resolution, to my mind. And too many of them didn’t have happy endings (hey, I’m a romance reader. I like happy endings).

The writing was understandably dated, with lots of old-fashioned description, telling, and omniscient point of view. But there were pearls in there. This quote sums up how I saw Dubliners:
The poor lady sang Killarney in a bodiless gasping voice, with all the old-fashioned mannerisms of intonation and pronunciation which she believed lent elegance to her singing.
I can hear that voice. It’s like the overacted movies from the 1940’s, before method acting was discovered, and it’s like some writing from newer writers, who haven’t read enough modern writing to know they are writing in a distinctly twentieth century voice.

There were also excellent examples of subtext, of subtly implying what he didn’t want to show:
He had never been violent since the boys had grown up.
There was an underlying racism that we’ve hopefully grown out of:
Is it because he’s only a black?
There were excellent examples of showing class and accent through vocabulary choice and word order:
The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.
There was some writing which was strong in any time:
. . . too excited to be genuinely happy.
. . . laughing as if his heart would break.
And there was humour (although I’m not sure if this was intentional):
. . . a young man of about forty.
If only! (And this was written when Joyce was in his mid-twenties.)

No, I didn’t enjoy Dubliners in terms of the stories or the characters. But I can see why my university selected Joyce as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

This book counts towards my 2015 Reading Challenge as a book I was supposed to read in school but didn't.

16 November 2015

Review: Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray

Excellent Historical Romance/Suspense

Miss Lydia Bancroft works in the Lincoln Lending Library in Chicago, and is newly engaged to the handsome, popular and wealthy Mr Jason Avondale, at the encouragement of her widowed and impoverished mother. Mr Sebastian Marks is a man from the wrong side of the tracks who has become rich through his club, the Silver Grotto, which offers the gentlemen of Chicago the twin evils of drink and gambling (although not the third evil of women). He frequents the Lending Library partly to better his knowledge, and partly to watch the librarian …

There is an almost unbearable sadness about Sebastian Marks in the early chapters, as we learn about his upbringing, his current employment, and his efforts to become the gentleman Lydia believes him to be, and he knows he will never be. Despite his dubious profession on not-quite-the-right side of the law, he was an honourable man who was loyal to his (few) friends and did his best to be respectable, not merely appear respectable.

The story incorporates the developing relationship between Lydia and Sebastian, the understated relationship between Mr Vincent Hunt (Sebastian’s man of business) and Bridget O’Connell (his servant), and a thread of suspense which comes to the forefront in the second half of the book. The characters were excellent, as was the plot and the way each of the characters were introduced and linked. There was also some excellent writing, and a low-key but evident Christian message.

But the focus of the novel was on the bittersweet relationship between Lydia and Sebastian, and that was its’ real strength. This could have been an almost-perfect read except for two things. There were some weird lines (e.g. the overused “he bit out” speech tag), and the ending came too fast—by which I mean the pace picked up and all the outstanding plot points were fixed in a couple of short chapters, which was out of kilter with the rest of the novel (which wasn’t slow, but wasn’t a fast-paced thriller either). These might be minor glitches but they were glitches all the same, and did affect my enjoyment of what was otherwise an excellent historical romance.

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.