Book Review: Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

MacbethAbout the Book

He’s the best cop they’ve got.

When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess.

He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past.

He’s rewarded for his success. Power. Money. Respect. They’re all within reach.

But a man like him won’t get to the top.

Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel. He’s convinced he won’t get what is rightfully his.

Unless he kills for it.

Format: Paperback (624 pp.)    Publisher: Vintage
Published: 20th September 2018 [5th April 2018] Genre: Fiction, Thriller

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My Review

Jo Nesbø is the latest author to participate in the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Launched in October 2015, the project’s stated aim is ‘to see Shakespeare’s plays reimagined by some of today’s bestselling and most celebrated writers. The books are true to the spirit of the original plays, while giving authors an exciting opportunity to do something new.’

This is the first book by Jo Nesbø I’ve read, although I’m aware of his books and his many fans across the world.  Therefore, I came to the book with high expectations both because of his reputation and the Shakespeare play he had chosen to tackle, Macbeth. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed.  At over 600 pages, I found the book rather a slog and not as gripping as I had expected.  For me, the author didn’t really succeed in ‘doing something new’ to the extent I was hoping for.

The book certainly fleshes out the back stories of many of the characters in Shakespeare’s play but I didn’t find this added much for me.  A lot of time was devoted to the detailed planning of police operations, carried out with ruthlessness and little regard for the rule of law.  So if you like plenty of blood and guts, you’ll be happy. Things picked up a little when Lady (the character who represents Lady Macbeth) arrived on the scene but not enough to reignite my interest in the book as a whole.

The book is set in a rundown Scottish town in the 1970s but has a distinctly dystopian feel.  It’s a place where unemployment and deprivation has led to a high level of addiction to drugs, gambling and alcohol.  In practice, the drug barons are in charge and corruption in local institutions, including the Police, is rife.  To my mind this was where the book worked best; conjuring up an atmosphere of decay and hopelessness, a society divided into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and torn apart by violence and gang warfare.

I think if the writing had been tauter, some of the detail had been excised and the author could have done more than just retell the story but set in another time and place, it would have made Macbeth a more compelling read.  Although there were elements I enjoyed, like some other reviewers, I don’t believe this is the most successful contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Vintage, and NetGalley.

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Jo NesboAbout the Author

Jo Nesbø is a bestselling Norwegian author and musician. He was born in Oslo and grew up in Molde. Nesbø graduated from the Norwegian School of Economics with a degree in economics. Nesbø is primarily famous for his crime novels about Detective Harry Hole, but he is also the main vocals and songwriter for the Norwegian rock band Di Derre. In 2007 Nesbø also released his first children’s book, Doktor Proktors Prompepulver.

(Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

NewBoyAbout the Book

‘O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back.’

Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again. The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s’ suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

Format: eBook, paperback (183 pp.) Publisher: Random House UK/Vintage
Published: 11th May 2017                    Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

New Boy: Othello Retold is the fifth in a series of retellings of Shakespeare plays by bestselling novelists as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Other writers who have contributed so far are Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood. You can find out more about the project here.

I always approach a retelling of a classic in something of a quandary.   To be successful, I feel a reinterpretation needs to shed new light on the original work.   A good example that always comes to mind is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea which presented a very different picture of the character of Bertha Mason from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  On the other hand, a retelling needs to be recognisably linked to its source material. But if you’re not familiar with the source material, do you get the same value from the retelling? Conversely, if you are familiar with the source material, do you lose focus on the new interpretation because you’re constantly looking for the connections with the original? Although well-written, in the end I was left ambivalent about New Boy.

The action takes place over a single school day giving a sense of a timescale similar to watching the play. The book is divided into five parts – Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess and After School – mirroring the five act structure of Shakespeare’s play. There are also references to acting and performance scattered throughout the book.

Then Dee gave the boy the precious class jump ropes, and they began to laugh, throwing their heads back as if there were no audience but the two of them, performing for each other.’

‘And himself, the new boy, standing still in the midst of these well-worn grooves, playing his part too.’

‘They were like characters in a play who needed an extra scene, a thread to pull them tight.’

In spite of the variation in names, it’s a simple matter to match the children and staff in the book with their equivalent characters in the play. I did find the ‘casting’ of Brabantio (Desdemona’s father in the play) as Mr Brabant, the teacher, slightly puzzling. But perhaps the author had in mind the role of teacher as ‘in loco parentis’.

The setting of the school playground with its petty rivalries and short-lived alliances was interesting. In the main, the characters were believable as eleven year-old children. The exception to this was Ian (who doubles for Iago). He seemed unrealistically wise beyond his years and his ability to manipulate, read others’ intentions and strategize just didn’t ring true for someone of his age.

What the book does very well is convey Osei’s feelings of being an outsider, of being different, of being regarded as something of a novelty and the casual, ‘everyday’ racism he experiences.

‘The kids who were friendly at school but didn’t ask him to their birthday parties even when they had invited the rest of the class….The assumption that he was better at sports because black people just – you know – are, or at dancing, or at committing crimes. The way people talked about Africa as if it were just one country.’

Unfortunately, I feel the children’s – and to some extent, the staff’s – sketchy knowledge of Osei’s cultural background and the fact he’s forced to simplify his name would be recognisable today. I’ve experienced situations in the workplace where people from India or Nigeria have found it easier to ‘anglicise’ their name or adopt a nickname rather than try to get colleagues to pronounce their given name correctly.

Although the book held my interest, in a way I felt it would have worked equally well as a story about difference and racial prejudice without the constraints of following the story of Othello.

I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Random House UK, in return for an honest review.

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TracyChevalierAbout the Author

TRACY CHEVALIER is the New York Times bestselling author of eight previous novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into 39 languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she lives in London with her husband and son.

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