Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Boy - by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a 2017 addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. At that time, Crown Publishing invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel written in their own style, and Chevalier’s novel is based upon Shakespeare’s Othello. New Boy was preceded by four earlier Hogarth Shakespeare books and will be followed by perhaps three others. 

I believe these to be the Hogarth Shakespeare books published to date:
Jeanette Winterson – The Gap of Time (based upon The Winter’s Tale)
Howard Jacobson – Shylock Is My Name (based upon The Merchant of Venice)
Anne Tyler – Vinegar Girl (based upon The Taming of the Shrew)
Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed (based upon The Tempest)
Tracy Chevalier – New Boy (based upon Othello)  (June 6, 2017)

I believe, too, that these are the books yet to be published: 
      Jo Nesbó – an as yet untitled book based upon Macbeth
      Edward St. Aubyn – an as yet untitled book based upon King Lear
      Gillian Flynn- an as yet untitled book based upon Hamlet

As far as I can tell, the Nesbó book was originally scheduled to precede New Boy but has yet to make its appearance.  The St. Aubyn book is scheduled for April 2018, and the Gillian Flynn take on Hamlet for January 2021.

Chevalier has taken the heart of Shakespeare’s Othello tragedy and transferred it from its original time and setting to a 1970s Washington D.C. school playground.  New Boy is the story of a boy’s first day as a new fifth grade elementary student in a D.C. suburb where he becomes the only black child in the school.  The school year is down to its final month, and most of the fifth-graders have known each other now for the better part of six years.  They are shocked to find a new student among them at this late date – especially a boy from Ghana with whom they seem to have nothing at all in common. 

Tracy Chevalier
Osei is so different from every other child on the playground that he immediately attracts the attention of every child there.  Most of the children are simply curious, but the fifth-grade bully (Ian) is acutely aware that Osei is a potential threat to his reign of terror, and the little girl (Dee) assigned to show him around the school on his first day soon finds herself falling in love with the new boy.   Dee’s reaction to Osei, though, is the last straw for Ian, and he is determined to destroy any chance of friendship between the most popular girl in the fifth grade and the new boy even before it has a chance to get started. 

New Boy is divided into natural breaks in the school day: Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess, and After School.  During each of these segments, Dee and Osei grow closer and closer while Ian manipulates the other fifth-grade students in his plot to destroy that relationship.  By the end of the day, friendships have been destroyed, fights endured, student and teacher reputations destroyed, and lives changed forever – and not for the better.

Not at all surprisingly, the Hogarth Shakespeare novels work well as standalone novels and can be enjoyed that way, but readers familiar with Shakespeare’s plots will especially enjoy noting where and how the plots of the novels intersect with the Shakespeare plays. The Hogarth Shakespeare series is one not to be missed.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Garden of Lamentations

Hard as it is to believe, Garden of Lamentations is Deborah Crombie’s seventeenth novel in the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series that started in 1993 with publication of A Share in Death.  Fans of the series will come into this one already knowing that Kincaid and James are husband and wife police detectives who live in London with their three children.  They will also likely know that in the previous novel in the series, To Dwell in Darkness, Duncan was transferred from his Scotland Yard position to an outlying police district and that Duncan became involved in an investigation that very much made him worry about the personal safety of himself and his family.  Not only were Duncan and Gemma pushed to their physical and mental limits, their best friends (and fellow cops), Doug and Melody, were equally tested.  The last few pages of To Dwell in Darkness hinted of more dark things to come for the four characters, and Crombie is quick to pick up on that theme in Garden of Lamentations.  Do not, however, worry too much about reading this one even if you haven’t read in the series before, because this new one works pretty well as a standalone novel also.

It all starts for Gemma James when the body of a young woman is discovered early one morning inside the walled, private garden of a group of wealthy London property owners.  As it turns out, the young victim had been acquainted with one of Gemma’s close friends, and that friendship somehow sucks Gemma into the investigation before she realizes what is happening.  She is not particularly happy about that, but when her friend’s influential husband manages to get her officially seconded to the investigation there is no getting out of it.  Regular mystery readers will recognize this as a version of the classic “locked room” type of mystery – no way into the garden without first going through one of the residences that surround it.

Deborah Crombie
In the meantime, Kincaid is revisiting the unfinished business from the previous novel and what he learns is enough to scare him to death. It seems that the rot inside Scotland Yard and the London Police runs deep and to very high levels.  Cops and ex-cops are being killed all over London and it is up to Kincaid, Doug, and Melody, to figure out who is calling the shots before they themselves become victims of the same plot. 

The two storylines pretty much run independently of each other, intersecting only when the main characters meet up to touch base and work out the resentments and hurt feelings resulting from having had so little personal contact with each other.  Because both of the plot lines are complicated and involve multiple characters and red herrings, I advise the reader to pay strict attention to what is revealed; this is not a novel to read when you are drowsy or have other distractions. Pay attention, however, and you will be intrigued by both the investigations and where they lead (pay particular attention to the descriptions and names in the flashback to 1994). 

Crombie has another winner on her hands.  Her novels cannot help but remind the reader of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, another detective series set in London but written by an American, but in my estimation, Crombie’s recent novels are more satisfying and enjoyable than George’s recent ones.  If you are unfamiliar with Crombie, jump on board. You’ll be happy that you did.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sailing to Byzantium (a Robert Silverberg short story)

“Sailing to Byzantium” is a long “short” story of 59 pages from Robert Silverberg.  Silverberg, who sold his first story in 1954, went on to become one of the most respected writers in all of science fiction.  He is a particular favorite of mine because of his special talent for creating fully developed, believable characters to inhabit the pages of his science fiction and fantasy stories.  No matter how outlandish or speculative the plots of his stories, it always feels like they are happening to real people. 

“Sailing to Byzantium” is set in a 50th century world in which only five cities exist.  These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, ordinary cities; they are replicas of major cities from the past that have been reconstructed here as they were in their prime solely for the pleasure of this world’s citizens to explore and experience them.  From time-to-time, one of the cities is “retired” and replaced by a new one so that people will always have a new experience to look forward to.  Since no one in this world seems to have a job anymore, rotating the cities on a regular basis plays a major role in keeping boredom to a minimum. 

Robert Silverberg
The five cities are all staffed by “temporaries,” a group of people there to play the roles of those who lived in the actual cities in the past.  As the story begins, the current cities are: Chang-an, Asgard, New Chicago, Timbuctoo, and Alexandria.  The story’s central character is a “visitor” to the 50the century, a tall man who has vivid memories of the “Old Chicago.” The man knows almost nothing about himself except that he is different from everyone he has met so far.  He remembers that his name is Charles Phillips and that he has somehow been transported here from his 1984 life…whatever that may have been like.

Phillips wonders about the true nature of the “temporaries” he encounters as he explores different cities with his 50th century girlfriend.  Are they real or are they something less than human?  But wonder as he might, definitive answers are hard to come by until he meets another “visitor” from the past for the first time ever.  Phillips is astounded to learn that this Viking warrior from a period in time much older than his own has figured out a few things for himself that never occurred to Phillips’ more “modern” self. 

“Sailing to Byzantium” is first class science fiction, but it really hits its stride when it shifts into a story of true love between the twentieth century Phillips and his doomed fiftieth century girlfriend.  This story is too easy to spoil by saying much more, so I’m going to stop right here.  Silverberg fans are probably already familiar with this one and how it turns out, but if you are not one of those hardcore Silverberg fans, I recommend that you find “Sailing to Byzantium” and enjoy it as a standalone read.  It’s a good one.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century

Because in 1994 Anne Perry’s books were not yet selling in the numbers they soon would sell, many of her current fans (if they were old enough even to have heard about it at the time) missed the big announcement that year about the author’s true identity.  Some forty years after having been convicted of one of the more infamous murders in the history of New Zealand, a New Zealand journalist revealed that Anne Perry is none other than convicted murderer Juliet Hulme – the same Juliet Hulme who in 1954, as a teen, helped Pauline Parker, her best friend, beat the girl’s mother to death with half a brick that Juliet brought from home for that specific purpose.  Peter Graham’s Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century is a meticulously researched account of events leading up to the murder, the murder itself, the trial that followed, and what happened to the key players in those events once the two killers had been released from prison to go their separate ways. 

Juliet Hulme, daughter of a prominent English couple, came to New Zealand as a young girl when her father was recruited for a university position in Christchurch.  Her lack of social skills did not stop the physically striking Juliet from making an impression on her classmates, albeit it, for the most part, a negative impression.  Pauline Parker, on the other hand, was blessed neither with physical attractiveness, nor with any social skills of which to speak. The angry and socially inept Pauline wanted badly to find a soul-mate to whom she could reveal her thoughts and dreams, and Juliet wanted just as badly to find someone she could recreate in her own image. The two girls were made for each other because each of them got their wish.

The two teens shortly after the murder
Pauline Parker’s mother, Honorah Rieper, did not die an easy death.  Barely aware of what was happening to her, the woman nonetheless valiantly attempted to fight off her attackers, and it was only when Juliet held her down by the throat that Pauline was finally able to finish off her mother.  There was never any doubt as to whom the woman’s murderers were, but the defiantly gleeful manner in which the two teens confessed to what they had done still managed to shock and surprise the country. 

Five and one-half years later, after the two young women were released from prison, they assumed new names and began the new lives far from Christchurch, that they hoped would shield them from further notoriety.  And it worked for forty years.

There is a lot of material out there, including one major movie (Heavenly Creatures), a documentary made inside Anne Perry’s Scotland home (Interiors), and several books that attempt to explain how two fifteen-year-old girls could so callously murder the mother of one of them.  In Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, Peter Graham explores each possibility, one by one, reaching his own conclusion that the strong homosexual ties between the two girls, compounded by a perfect meshing of two distinct personality disorders, created exactly the perfect storm needed to make such a thing possible. 

More recent photo of "Anne Perry"
Perhaps most shocking today, is how differently the two women have responded to what they did in 1954.  On the one hand, Paulette Parker has lived a life of repentance and appears still to be much bothered by what she did to her mother.  On the other, Juliet Hulme (Anne Perry) still shows no remorse whatsoever and has constructed a version of the events that she uses to explain why she had no other choice but to help her friend commit matricide.  As Graham notes, Perry’s version of what led up to the murder is so obviously false that it cannot be taken seriously.  Anne Perry appears to be much the same person that she was in 1954.

When asked if she ever thinks of the woman she and Paulette murdered, this writer who has made a fine living for herself writing bloody murder mysteries for the last four decades said this:

“No. She was somebody I barely knew.”

And yet, as late as 2006 according to Peter Graham, Anne Perry and her publisher were known to grant interviews about the murder just prior to the publication of a new Anne Perry book, under the theory, I suppose, that “no publicity is bad publicity.” 

To this point, they seem to be correct about that.