A Book Review Blog

Category: Drama

Richard III by William Shakespeare

I’ve been looking forward to reading Richard III for a long while now. Why this one in particular? It has one of the most gleefully enjoyable villain protagonists that I have had the pleasure of reading; having found a comic adaptation of an abridged version of the play whilst in high school. Having now read the full play, my expectations were more than met.

For those who have lived under a rock for many years, here’s the plot. Richard Duke of Gloster, having helped his elder brother Edward to claim the throne (events that I covered partially in my reviews of the Henry VI plays), decides to usurp his elder brothers and their offspring. In his plot to become king, he decides that the best course of action is to kill anyone and everyone who might be a threat to his claim, and for a time it does work very well. It is only when he goes a step too far that things start to fall apart. But by god, it is fun while it lasts: as a villain protagonist, Richard is just so enthusiastic about being evil that it’s really rather infectious. Granted, it means that the Richard III fan-club burst a collective blood vessel whenever the play is performed, but I think that the writing and characterisation for Richard is by far the strongest aspect of the play, regardless of the dubiousness of the play’s historical accuracy.
My high opinion of the text was probably to the detriment of my enjoyment when watching the BBC adaptation. The text created such vivid visualisations for me that the actual film adaptation jarred with what had been floating around in my brain. As it was, this was still a very good adaptation in all but one aspect: sound. Almost all the dialogue was incredibly loud at some points, then unintelligibly quiet at other points; it was most frustrating to have to strain to hear Shakespeare’s fantastic dialogue, with the knowledge that I’d be deafened if I turned up the volume any louder.

I did consider writing a defence for the real Richard III, but I decided that, interesting as history may be, I am here to assess the merits of Shakespeare’s reinterpretation of the man, not compare the two versions. As a play, it’s fantastic; it’s the rise and fall of a man who doesn’t learn when he’s made one corpse too many. As a history lesson, it’s flawed at best, but if you’re consulting Shakespeare as a historian then you have other problems. 5/5

Next review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Marshmallows For Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Marshmallows For Breakfast is not the kind of book that I usually pick up. To be honest, I can’t actually remember buying this for any better reasons than it was cheap and I liked the title. After Gillespie and I though, I think I needed a simpler read, something that would leave me in a clearer state of mind; a comfort read if you will. In that capacity, Dorothy Koomson has certainly delivered.

Marshmallows For Breakfast follows Kendra Tamale as she moves to England after living abroad in Australia. Her hopes at finding a simpler life than the one she had in Australia are quickly dashed when she finds herself helping her landlord’s two young children, Summer and Jaxon, as they struggle to deal with their parents’ inevitable separation. While the children and their father manage to worm their way into her affections, Kendra is keeping a huge, incredibly painful secret from them.
In regards to the plot, I liked it, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was kind of, well, amateurish. The main thing that I can think of is that it feels like the novel tried to tackle too many “big” issues; quite frankly, I think that the pressures of looking after someone else’s children and the fallout that comes from divorce are subjects that can easily take up a whole novel by itself. The fact that there are at least three other big issues that get discussed as part of the narrative makes it feel a bit like Dorothy Koomson wrote this more as a way to get her views out to the public. While she does manage to mostly make the inclusion of these issues fit, it does feel a little preachy; the closest character that you could consider a villain is undoubtedly evil and completely unrepentant for what he has done, which just feels weird considering the comparatively balanced and sympathetic way that almost every other character is portrayed in, despite their failings and issues. One thing that I will give Dorothy Koomson credit for is that she doesn’t feel the need to force a romance into the already full narrative.
The characters are well-written and sympathetic, especially Summer and Jaxon; I was actually rather surprised to find myself liking the two kids, despite the frequent moments in which they act up like every small child you are ever likely to meet. Apart from the children though, there weren’t really any characters that really stood out as such. Well written, but not great.

Overall, this is a comfortable read. It’s not something that I would recommend to someone looking for a book that will challenge them or broaden their horizons. This is well-suited for when you’ve reached a point where you’re just emotionally or mentally tired. 3/5

Next review: Richard III by William Shakespeare

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Henry VI Part Three by William Shakespeare

Thus are the Henry VI plays concluded. Having thoroughly enjoyed the second part of this trilogy I was quite looking forward to the conclusion of the story. I find myself kind of confused by it. There will be spoilers for Henry VI Part Two

Having read an adaptation of Richard III into comic form, I couldn’t help but think of this as a prequel to that play. While this play isn’t bad, it seemed a bit odd from a dramatic standpoint, as the end of this play is largely the same as the end of the second. Granted, this is probably due to the adherence to overall historical events, but it still felt odd. The only major differences between the two are the death of Richard, Duke of York, in the first act and the set-up of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as a thorn in the side of his brother’s ambitions. Otherwise, it is a similar mix of political intrigue and outright war that was showcased in Parts One and Two. 
As for the BBC’s adaptation, I must commend Julia Foster for her performance as Queen Margaret: she manages to be both sympathetic, as she fights to win back the throne that she believes to lawfully belong to her husband Henry as well as her son, yet at the same time she is genuinely unpleasant as she taunts and curses her foes. The rest of the cast turn in very good performances and I can’t fault the production overall. 
Overall, this is a fairly simple review to write. If you enjoyed the first two parts, you will enjoy this part. I would also recommend this trilogy to those who enjoyed Richard III. 3.5/5 
Next review: ZOO by Otsuichi 
Signing off, 

Henry VI Part Two by William Shakespeare

It is time once again for me to get too big for my boots and review the work of Shakespeare with the continuation of the Henry VI plays. Obviously the last play ended with the tone set for much political intrigue and turmoil to come, so I was expecting bigger and better things. I got them.

In the second instalment of the trilogy, the action is squarely focused on England and the escalation of political factions and ambitions that go unnoticed and unchecked by the eponymous Henry VI, who is ill-equipped to handle life at court. And it is incredibly entertaining. Personally, I do love political intrigue and uncertain allegiances, as it allows for incredibly complex plots to be hatched as well as equally complex character interactions. This play has it in abundance: first in the combined efforts of court figures to rid themselves of the Duke of Gloster, Lord Protector, in order to forward their individual ambitions, as well as the Duke of York working to make his claim as rightful heir to the throne. Stuck in the middle of all this is Henry himself, a young man more suited to the life of the clergy than that of royalty, and his inexperience and timidness encouraging the more sly and ambitious of his courtiers. It’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s a glorious sight to behold.
In the last Shakespeare review, I mentioned the staging in the BBC adaptation; this is a practice that I will continue in this reviews as well as others to come. With this adaptation, it follows the same format, with one sound stage for all the different locations, but I felt it worked better in this second part, as the scope wasn’t so wide as it was in the first part. The performances were overall a solid affair, with only the occasional moment which seemed suspect which brings to mind mainly Frank Middlemass’ decision to ham it up for Cardinal Beaufort’s death scene; a particularly strong performance would be Julia Foster’s Margaret, who I thought captured her slyness and selfishness perfectly. The only odd decision made in this adaptation that really stuck with me was the incredibly odd editing style in the battle between York and Old Clifford in the fifth act: never before have I seen slow motion shots so strangely, and in this case poorly, utilised.

Overall, this was a marked improvement over Henry VI Part One, both in terms of the writing itself and the adaptation. This may well be my preference for politics over big battle scenes, but it nevertheless feels stronger for the comparative lack of fighting. I look forward to the conclusion of this trilogy. 4/5

Next review: Blackest Night by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert & Joe Prado

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Henry VI Part One by William Shakespeare

It is probably a bit presumptuous of me to start targeting the Bard himself for criticism, considering that I’ve only been blogging and reviewing for little over a year. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I’ve already read some of his plays for various levels of schooling and I’ve enjoyed the experience every time, so I see no reason why I should put off reading the entirety of his works any longer. My edition of Shakespeare’s complete works orders the plays in what can be considered chronological order (much as that is disputed), so I’ll just be reading them in the order set out there, as I see no reason to hop around the texts all willy-nilly. Hence why I’ve started with the first part in the Henry VI series of plays.

Considering that the play is named Henry VI, Henry himself doesn’t turn up until the beginning of Act III. Much as he is the title character though, I wouldn’t say that the play is much about him. He’s a background factor more than anything. The real conflict here is that of Talbot rallying English troops to regain lost French territories, combating the supernaturally aided presence of Joan La Pucelle (known to most of us as Joan of Arc); this effort is threatened from within the English forces by the uprising of various factions, who aim to influence the young, naive King Henry to support their various personal causes. It also involves lots of stabbing and a lot of jokes about cowardly Frenchmen. As a text, I’d say about half of it works really well. Political intrigue and the changes of allegiance work fantastically because it’s an opportunity for Shakespeare to really have some grand dialogue, even if the reason for it is petty beyond all reason. Obviously, battles are a visual things and thus are implied between lines of dialogue, which can make it kind of difficult to keep track of what’s just happened if you miss the tiny bit of text about one or another character dying. That said, it’s a play, so it is meant to be watched. Hence why I watched the BBC’s adaptation of it. While the limitations of using one sound stage for every scene, including battles, made the affair somewhat less grand than I had imagined, it was quite well made and very entertaining to watch. It’s a shame that I could never really take the French characters seriously as a threat then. First there’s Charles, the Dauphin who claims to be the rightful King of France, is an idiot no more fit for the throne than King Henry who is supposed to be a child; a similar thing could be said of Alencon. The other main followers, Reignier, the Bastard of Orleans and Burgundy just sort of blend into the background. Not what I would consider especially threatening. But my main problem with the French characters is La Pucelle. Compared with the men, she’s pretty much lain claim to all the potential evil that they could have had as a whole. Communicating with the legions of hell? Check. Biggest gold-digger that side of the Channel? Check. Disrespectful to the dead? Check. This may just be the interpretation of the BBC production, as she seemed less of a conniving egomaniac in the text itself, but I had sort of hoped that La Pucelle would have at least one redeeming feature, but no. I can appreciate that making the French seem anything but evil would have been unheard of in the time it was written, but there is such thing as re-interpretation. Oh well, it’s not an absolutely awful flaw, much as I’ve talked about it, certainly nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of watching or reading Henry VI.

Overall, a solid first entry into the Henry VI trilogy of plays, if a little simplistic in some areas. 3.5/5

Next review: Angel by L. A. Weatherly

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Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

The main reason I picked this book out off the second hand book stall is that I’d heard that this had been made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman, an actor I adore after seeing him in Rainman. But does reading this make me actually want to watch Midnight Cowboy? Not especially.

If I’m honest, I was utterly underwhelmed by this novel. Midnight Cowboy follows a young Texan named Joe Buck, who decides that he’s going to make his fortune in New York as a gigolo; when he arrives, however, he finds that he isn’t really cut out for success as a hustler, quickly becoming homeless and falling in with crippled con-man Ratso Rizzo. The story itself is interesting enough, I can’t really complain there. No, my main complaint is the use of Joe as the point-of-view character: simply put, I don’t particularly like him. He is a person that I can imagine being irritated with extremely quickly in real life, for various reasons. Firstly, he is very slow; that may be a mean thing to point out, but it is a main character trait of his and it’s one that really slowed down the narrative for me, as it meant that nothing actually happens to move him forward. Secondly, his stupidity means that he is manipulated by pretty much everyone that he meets in this narrative. I know that this is meant to show how tough you have to be to survive on the streets, as it were, but when you compare Joe to Ratso it just seems that Joe is incredibly weak-minded and malleable; every decision he makes is either something he drifted into by chance or influenced by smarter or more persuasive people around him, up until the end, where it soon makes no real difference. This leads me on to the third reason that I wasn’t fond of Joe as the main protagonist: considering quite how naive and stupid he is, choosing to be a hustler seems like an uncharacteristically cynical/nonsensical move on his part especially considering that he already has a steady job; I would imagine that prostituting yourself would only be an option if 1) you were desperate for money and couldn’t get it any other way or 2) you had gotten so jaded that prostitution really didn’t seem that big a step. Joe has neither of those excuses, which is incredibly frustrating; he just gets the idea in his head that he can earn loads of money as a hustler without any effort on his part. Basically that one stupid move has essentially removed whatever capability Joe has for being sympathetic, for me at least, as I couldn’t help but feel that he kind of deserved a lot of what he got for being an idiot.
There were two things that I think saved it from being a total waste of my time though. The first is Ratso, who I think would have made a much more interesting main character, but then that’s my opinion. The idea of him being played by Dustin Hoffman is the one thing that still makes me consider watching the film adaptation. The other thing that saved this book from utter condemnation is the ending, where Joe and Ratso have a few moments of really touching camaraderie, which seemed oddly absent considering that this is supposedly a book with friendship as a main theme.

I may have moaned about this a heck of a lot, but in all honesty this is mainly because I wanted this book to be really good, and there are elements that work well or show a lot of potential, but it’s written in such a way that it just left me feeling…well…’meh’. There’s no other way I can really put it. 2.5/5

Next review: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

After a couple of days break from reading and this short play that I finished in a couple hours, I’d say that I’m well and truly recovered from The Divine Comedy. Interesting as it was, it was rather exhausting. So, now to review Spring Awakening, and I’m not quite sure where to begin precisely because I’ve never reviewed a play before. Personally, I’d prefer to see a stage production before reviewing this, but as far as I know the main version of this that gets performed is the rock opera version, which might be a tad too modern for the subject matter in all honesty. In any case, please be gentle in your criticisms if I bungle this horribly.

Spring Awakening follows a group of 14 year old students as they experience the effects of puberty and the first stirrings of sexuality, hence the title. That in itself would be interesting subject matter, but the setting complicates matters somewhat. Spring Awakening is set in Germany in the 1890s, a time where the transitional period known as being a teenager wasn’t acknowledged and where awakening sexuality was viewed as a problem at best. So really, these kids have little to no chance getting out of this play unharmed. I personally really liked the way that the setting limited how these teens can express themselves and their sexuality, although its significance in today’s society is certainly less than the impact it had at the time of publication.
So, as this play is essentially an ensemble piece, the most important part of the play would be the characters and their mini plot-lines that mix together to disastrous results. I suppose the main character would be Melchior, although he as a character by himself is less interesting than how he interacts with the other characters’ plot-lines; in comparison to the majority of characters, he’s well-adjusted, happy with who he is and a free thinker who questions the system around him relentlessly. His best friend, Moritz, goes to him as a confidant, in both sexual and everyday matters; in his case, Moritz’s parents are pressuring him to do well academically, but the beginnings of puberty are making it harder to concentrate on keeping his failing grades up than it would be normally. There’s Wendla, a teen whose mother insists on treating her like a little girl, for instance insisting, despite Wendla’s age, that babies arrive via stork; add an ill advised sexual relationship with Melchior to that utter lack of knowledge and you can probably guess where that story-line goes. Those are the main three characters, with both Moritz and Wendla’s seperate story-lines culminating in such a way that disaster is brought upon Melchior for his involvement. They aren’t the only characters who go through a spring awakening, but they don’t really add anything to the overall story arc. There’s Ilse, who decided that school wasn’t for her and thus dropped out to become a painter’s model. There’s Martha, whose parents beat her for silly things like decorating her nightdress with ribbons. And then there’s Hans, who is probably my favourite character and probably has the two most shocking scenes (for the time it was written anyway) in the entire play: firstly masturbating to a classical nude whilst re-enacting the murder of Desdemona (I have to applaud him for creativity, even if the image makes me break out into hysterical giggling) and secondly an onstage kiss with his friend Ernst. Overall, the characters are very entertaining, with the teen characters nicely curious and the adults providing a suitably limiting atmosphere. My one complaints about the teen characters would be the dialogue. Now I’m not sure whether this is just a matter of translation or whether this is present in the original German, but to me the teens don’t sound like teens. The majority of the characters are supposed to be about 14, but unless it weren’t specifically stated, I would have thought that they were about 18-19, only a little younger than me. Maybe it was a culture thing or something, seeing as our current concept of children has only been a comparatively recent development in human society, but despite how hard I try to accept that explanation, there are several lines that just remind me of university discussions. Try this line of Melchior’s, as he’s discussing Faust, specifically the scene where Faust seduces Gretchen:

“Let’s face it, Goethe’s masterpiece does not reach it’s zenith in that sad little episode. But the way people go on about it – you’d think the whole world revolved around penis and vagina.” 

What 14-year-old boys do you know who would talk like that? None, that’s how many. To be honest, most of the people I can remember when they were 14 would dissolve into fits of giggles the moment anything sex-related was mentioned, so a line like that just seems wrong coming out of a 14-year-old mouth. From college/university student and older? Now you’re entering the realms of possibility.

Despite the problems I have with the overly mature language and diction that the teen characters possess, I did really enjoy this play and I would quite happily agree to viewing a performance of this, should I find one. 4/5

Next review: Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse.

Signing off,

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