Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Book review: 1606

In a brief change from the fiction I usually read, another of James Shapiro's histories of the events that influenced Shakespeare's writing. After 1599, we get 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, with the plays that premiered that year being King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. There's lots of outside elements big and small that seem to be reflected in those plays but inevitably most of them come back to the Gunpowder Plot of the previous year. I knew that Macbeth carried a lot of echoes of that, but Shapiro also finds possible links in King Lear, which would probably have been written by November 1605, but might have had amendments before it reached the stage, acknowledging some of the current events everyone was paranoid about at the time (the anonymous letter Edmund plants to frame Edgar might have given people flashbacks to one that revealed the plot to Parliament in time for it to be stopped.) The two very different versions of Lear in quarto and folio form are also discussed, changes which might have been made as the parameters of what was and wasn't appropriate to be staged changed.

There's also a little-known story of an alleged assassination of James I, a rumour that spread with amazing speed throughout the country and sounds uncannily like the many false celebrity death rumours that make the rounds nowadays. Overall I found much interesting stuff here, especially since, as Shapiro points out in the opening, people seem less interested in exploring Shakespeare as a Jacobean playwright despite the fact that his company had a much closer relationship with James than with his predecessor.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Book review: The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell's (not that one) The Bone Clocks has some similarities to his most famous book Cloud Atlas, although it's got a more linear structure than the Russian doll format of that novel, and its story takes place over a single lifetime: That of Holly Sykes, who narrates the first segment as a teenager in the 1980s, and the final one as a grandmother in the 2040s. In between we have multiple other narrators, all of whom have some connection to Holly, whether it be a significant one or fleeting.

As well as following a human life from a distance, The Bone Clocks also has a supernatural element that reveals itself more and more as the story goes on: Holly is caught in the middle of a centuries-old war between two species of immortals, one group nicknamed Carnivores, who kill to maintain their own eternal youth, and the other calling themselves Horologists, who are eternally reincarnated while remembering all their previous lives, and who are determined to wipe out the murderous Carnivores.

It may have taken me a while but this was probably my favourite Mitchell book since Cloud Atlas, and it also seems to take place in the same universe as all his other books, including his dire warnings about a post-industrial future (assuming the penultimate Cloud Atlas segment in a high-tech future could have been taking place only in China, while the rest of the world succumbed to the events of The Bone Clocks.) I think strict literary fiction fans might be a bit nonplussed at how the gentle suggestions of the supernatural turn into full-on fantasy for the 2020s part of the story, but for me the personal stories were interesting (even when some of the narrators are far from sympathetic) and the fantasy element effectively blended into the more naturalistic framework.