BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy ChevalierTitle: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #5
Published by Hogarth
Published: May 11th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 204
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

 You are not my brother, O thought. He hated it when white people used that word, trying to take on some of the coolness of black culture without wearing the skin and paying the dues.

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is the latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I think it’s one of my favorites of the series. Having studied and taught Othello, I felt as if I were able to deconstruct the novella as I was reading it and delight in the correlations of the novella to the play.

Osei, or O, is a Ghanian diplomat’s son, and he is attending a new school in the 1970s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. when a series of dramatic events unfold on school grounds from first bell to the final bell. It’s evident from the beginning that O is one of the only black students to attend this school, and that sets him apart immediately. Racial tensions are high, and everyone from the students to the instructors harbors some kind of prejudice toward O either through their own ignorance or through something that happens during the span of the day.

I thought Chevalier’s transposition of the dramatics of Othello to a schoolyard playground with all of its hormone-fueled rage, jealousies, and love was spectacularly done. Somehow the age of the major characters seemed to elevate the drama to something at once so believable and frightening. The final scene in the novella is heart-stopping and ends abruptly. I only wish there was more, a few pages of the aftermath, but as in the play, the reader is left with a quick cut to a black screen without that neat resolution.

In such a small book, Chevalier weaves a depth in each of her major characters, and her talent really shines in her development of O’s struggles at home, with himself and his place in the world, and how those struggles clash with the reality he faces at his new school. You feel his awkwardness, his intelligence, his anger, his love, and his wrath in a mere two hundred pages, and you’re left wanting to know more about this young man by the time the book ends.

New Boy is a masterful retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most racially charged plays, and it had me hooked from page one.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye

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BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay FayeTitle: Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: April 2nd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Retellings
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 As he passed a hand over his eyes, I recalled the he could not have slept more than twenty hours in the last seven days. For the first time since I had known him, Sherlock Holmes appeared to be exhausted by work rather than inaction.

“Because if I am right,” he murmured, “I haven’t the first idea what to do.”

Lyndsay Faye’s debut novel Dust and Shadow imagines what it might be like if Sherlock Holmes and John Watson investigated and solved the Jack the Ripper murders. While she tackles some of the more sensitive issues regarding women and people who are not well-off white men, Faye brings to life that Holmesian Victorian London as if Doyle himself might have imagined. The details of day-to-day life are so vivid and believable that there were times while I was reading this that I forgot it was a pastiche.

This novel is a bit slow at first and really takes about a third of the novel to get to the really interesting bits, but once you’ve hit that mark, the story sweeps you away. Holmes is our cynical, cold, cerebral detective, and Watson is our devoted and daring narrator. Faye’s Watson illuminates the humanity of every character in the novel and develops them well. The addition of Mary Ann Monk, a prostitute who proves herself to Holmes and Watson to be “a woman of extraordinary fortitude. Compared to Doyle’s historically sexist and racist writing, Faye’s Victorian England and the characters intertwined are presented in a more modern and humanist light that I found refreshing, daring, and forward.

While I have read many historical documents and fictional narratives surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders, I found Faye’s (and Holmes’s and Watson’s) deductions and conclusions regarding the murderer to be enlightening, engaging, and well-researched.

As usual, we readers are seeing the story unfold through Watson’s eyes and Watson’s pen, so there are times when we should question Watson and his presentation. Did things happen so neatly as Watson writes them out to be? Watson, when writing these narratives, already knows the end and the resolution, so are any of the details exaggerated or changed to fit a narrative? And there are times when Watson and ourselves as readers have no clue what Holmes is about to do, and that’s what I think really drives this story (and any good Sherlock Holmes story).  Holmes already knows the answers, but we need to know them, even if “on occasion his dictatorial glibness grated upon [our] nerves.” But that’s what keeps us reading until the very end.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes in any form, find Jack the Ripper fascinating, or just like a good murder mystery, pick Faye’s novel up immediately.

Faye has a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories coming out in early 2017, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her Holmesian mysteries.

BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory Maguire

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BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory MaguireTitle: After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Published by William Morrow
Published: October 27th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: eBook, Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss, Library
AmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

Our private lives are like a colony of worlds expanding, contracting, breathing universal air into separate knowledges. Or like several packs of cards shuffled together by an expert anonymous hand, and dealt out in a random, amused or even hostile way.

In his previous retellings of famous fairy tales and stories, Gregory Maguire has a tell-tale style that draws you in, hooks you, and doesn’t let you go until he’s finished telling his story. I found After Alice to be lacking this particularly in Ada’s story. I think had it been more focused on Lydia’s becoming the woman of the house and the struggles she finds with that at the tender age of fifteen, or of Siam’s story as a former slave from Georgia, or of Darwin’s particular visit to the house that day I would have liked it more, but Ada’s part of the story (which should have been the most interesting) fell flat. I did particularly like Maguire’s take on the Jabberwocky, the bits and people about Oxford that were to come (which bordered on metafiction), and there were some lines that resonated with me. Otherwise, I felt that this was a draft of some kind with no real cohesion.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

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BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard JacobsonTitle: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #2
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 9th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
AmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

A daughter doesn’t have to have an education to be taught how to hate her father. She can learn rebellion through an open window. It’s in the nature of a daughter.

Shylock Is My Name is Howard Jacobson’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I felt it to be such a let down after reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. I read Jacobson’s J last year and was disappointed in it in similar ways as I am disappointed in this one. While he can write, Jacobson is very disjointed in his writing, as if he is showing off to us plebs how smart, how intelligent, how verbose, how white, how upper class, and (in this case) how Jewish he is and therefore how much better he is than the rest of us. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those books that are written for men, about men, and by men that us helpless females are too different fundamentally to understand what it’s all about.

In this case, this is Jacobson’s rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I have vague recollections of reading this play and finding Shylock interesting, but this novel didn’t seem to capture the Shakespeare “essence” as I felt Winterson’s retelling did.

What I disliked about this novel is the consistent and sexually charged current of a father obsessed with what enters his daughter’s vagina. Yes. Literally. I don’t recall that interpretation made of Shakespeare’s play, so it caught me off guard.

In chapter eight, Strulovitch comments on his daughter, Beatrice:

It had been going on a long time. She was thirteen when it started. Thirteen in fact, twenty-three in appearance. Luscious. A Levantine princess. A pomegranate. She was luscious to herself, too. He had caught her looking at her reflection in the mirror once, pouting her lips and laughing at her own fullness, smoothing her thighs, pushing out her breasts, amused by the too-muchness but overwhelmed by it at the same time. As though it imposed a responsibility on her. Was this really her? Was this really hers to do with as she chose? […] Of course she had to deploy herself. Of course she had to feel her beauty had a purpose beyond her own gaze and, yes – because she knew he tailed her, knew he followed her into her own bedroom even – beyond his.

It continues throughout the novel with Strulovitch thinking about whether or not he should find his daughter attractive. He also, through the entire length of the novel, considers the utmost importance of his existence was to make sure that the penis that enters her vagina is circumcised and importantly Jewish so that Beatrice is not banished from her family. Strulovitch is incredibly abusive in all ways to his young daughter in the way that many fanatic religious believers are. As her father, he believes he controls her entirely, from her day-to-day life to her private, sexual life. When she doesn’t listen to him, he goes off and throws a tantrum, demanding that pivotal pound of flesh.

In all, I think because I am not both “male” and Jewish, I miss the point of this self-reflexive novel. It brings to the forefront questions of Jewish morality in the modern age and whether or not the honest Jew should bend to the modern ways or be rigid as tradition dictates. And where The Merchant of Venice is argue as anti-semitic, I wonder if Jacobson’s novel is meant to be a mirror to it of sorts as it is constantly questioning the role of Jewishness in society where Merchant did not.

And where the play is unsympathetic toward Jewish people, this novel is unsympathetic toward women. It’s incredibly misogynistic in a way that’s uncomfortable and anger-inducing. Men do not own women and should absolutely never control the expression of a woman’s sexuality, no matter what age or relation. But alas. I don’t think Jacobson works for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything of his in the future.

This book was provided to me for my honest review by Blogging for Books.

A Lyrical Reimagining; Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time

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A Lyrical Reimagining; Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of TimeTitle: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #1
Published by Hogarth
Published: October 6th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 273
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
AmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is a modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. None of the names or situations in Winterson’s novel reflect those from Shakespeare’s play, but thematically it felt very Shakespeare. I remember reading A Winter’s Tale forever ago in my Shakespeare course in undergrad. What I remember  from that reading of the play are themes of family and jealousy, and those themes are heavily prevalent in Winterson’s reimagining.

While at times I thought the story felt a little too contrived, I recalled that Shakespeare’s plays feel the same way sometimes too. They’re constructed to explore a certain aspect of humanity, and that construction must be tight enough for a staged production with a wide audience. Some suspension of belief must be used. Everything in Shakespeare’s plays happen for a reason, and I think Winterson worked with that well. It’s also incredibly poetic and felt like I was reading an amazing dream.

I read this in a single day. Something about it was so engaging that I literally could not put it down. I like that; Shakespeare’s plays can be read in one sitting.

Hogarth, a division of Penguin Random House, is publishing a series of books (The Hogarth Shakespeare) written by critically acclaimed authors reimagining and reinventing Shakespeare’s famous plays. Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first. Coming in 2016 are Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew, and Margaret Atwood’s The Tempest. I am so looking forward to Margaret Atwood’s! You can read more about the series and the other authors participating at Vintage’s website!

This book was provided to me by Blogging for Books for review. All opinions are my own.