#BookReview If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

IfWeWereVillainsAbout the Book

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day of his release, he is greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, and he wants to know what really happened a decade before.

As a young actor at an elite conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same characters onstage and off – villain, hero, temptress – though he was always a supporting role. But when the teachers change the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into real life.

When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless…

Format: Paperback (432 pages)    Publisher: Titan Books
Publication date: 13th June 2017 Genre: Crime

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My Review

The author is a devotee of Shakespeare and this certainly comes across in the book. For instance its title is a quote from King Lear. Not only do the fourth year drama students at Dellecher Classical Conservatory study and perform only the works of Shakespeare but the book is peppered with references to and quotations from the Bard’s plays. Indeed the students frequently converse in Shakespeare-like quotations. The book’s structure also mimics a theatrical format being divided into acts and scenes, each act starting with a prologue.

All the characters have flaws although Richard – ‘pure power, six foot three and carved from concrete’ – seems set up from the beginning as the villain of the piece.  There’s an interesting scene in which the students are forced by one of the course tutors to declare their strengths and weaknesses with unflinching honesty.

As the book progresses, the bonds of friendship become increasingly tested and are eventually broken altogether on one momentous night that is no A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The storyline incorporates all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy: passion, ambition, duplicity, betrayal, revenge, even madness. ‘Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.’ The modern world intrudes occasionally in the form of drink and drug fuelled parties that last well into the early hours.

Although I enjoyed If We Were Villains, by Act V I was beginning to experience a bit of Shakespeare overload which may have contributed to the sense that the book lacked pace. The obvious comparison is with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History but the enclosed and rather claustrophobic nature of Dellecher Classical Conservatory – described at one point as ‘less academic institution than cult’ – also reminded me a little of Caldonbrae Hall, the boarding school in Madam by Phoebe Wynne.

In three words: Atmospheric, intricate, dramatic

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M L RioAbout the Author

M. L. Rio was born in Miami and has just competed her MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London. In 2016 she won a contest to stay in Hamlet’s Castle at Elsinore for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, where she was the first person to sleep in the castle in over 100 years. If We Were Villains is her debut novel.

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#BookReview The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women of the CastleAbout the Book

Bavaria, Germany. June 1945. The Third Reich has crumbled. The Russians are coming.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed 20th July 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

Marianne assembles a makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, rescuing her dearest friend’s widow, Benita, from sex slavery to the Russian army, and Ania from a work camp for political prisoners. She is certain their shared past will bind them together.

But as Benita begins a clandestine relationship and Ania struggles to conceal her role in the Nazi regime, Marianne learns that her clear-cut, highly principled world view is infinitely more complicated now, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart.

All three women must grapple with the realities they now face, and the consequences of decisions each made in the darkest of times…

Format: Hardback (368 pages)     Publisher: Zaffre
Publication date: 18th May 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

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20-books-of-summerMy Review

The Women of the Castle is the third book from my list for the 20 Books of Summer 2022 reading challenge. Yes I know, we’re already over half way through August. Like all the other books on my list, it’s been in my TBR pile for way too long.

Firstly the things I liked about the book. I thought the way the author uses the prologue to contrast the glamorous atmosphere within the castle with events elsewhere in Germany was very powerful. ‘But outside, beyond the walls, terrible things were happening.’ Even more so once we realise the party is taking place on what will come to be known as Kristallnacht. I also liked the fact the book focuses on Germans who were opposed to the Nazi regime, including those such as Marianne’s husband who made the difficult choice to take direct action to oppose Hitler. I found the stories of Ania and Benita especially powerful (even if I never quite worked out how Ania ended up on Marianne’s list of the wives of resisters).

As the book progressed I didn’t mind the changes in point of view from one woman to another but the frequent moving back and forth in time left me frustrated and often confused.  At one point the book jumps back to 1923 and a rather unnecessary (to my mind) final part sees us in 1991. Often there are brief references to quite significant events in the past but it is many chapters before we learn the full details of them.  At times, I felt the book glossed over some events while dealing with others in painstaking detail.

Marianne is the dominant character in the book, or perhaps domineering would be more appropriate. So many of the events in the lives of the other two women are influenced by the decisions Marianne makes. On a number of occasions they are wrong, even fateful decisions. As Benita observes at one point, ‘It was so much like Marianne to act first and then think.’ I had to agree with Ania’s first impression of Marianne as a woman ‘accustomed to giving orders.’ Although I could admire Marianne’s determination to fulfil the promise made to her husband to be ‘the commander of wives and children’ and rescue the families of his co-conspirators, I found her rather contradictory. For example, she is effortlessly multi-lingual but can’t acquite basic cookery skills.

Focussing on the positives once again, I felt the book was particularly successful in demonstrating how difficult it can be to lay to rest the events of the past, to heal the divisions caused by war, and to repair, both physically and mentally, the damage that has been done. Benita exemplifies this well. ‘History was horrible, a long, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone’s own personal understanding of the past.’

In the Acknowledgments, Jessica Shattuck reveals that it took her seven years to write this book, much of it inspired by her own family history. The depth of historical detail in the book is evidence of her painstaking research. However, although I found much to admire about The Women in the Castle, the back and forth structure of the book didn’t quite work for me.

I received a review copy courtesy of Zaffre.

In three words: Powerful, detailed, expansive

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Jessica ShattuckAbout the Author

Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding, a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, and of Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, among others. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. Shattuck now lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, MA.

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