The Unbeatable Bard: A Review of Beth Miller’s For The Love of Shakespeare

My copy of Beth's brilliant book with fave bits post-it-ed!

My copy of Beth’s brilliant book with fave bits post-it-ed!

Prior to writing for a living, I was a professional actress so when the opportunity arose to review Beth Miller’s companion guide to the world’s most famous dramatist there was no way I was going to refuse. I adore Shakespeare, though I never did get to play one of his characters. I performed in many of his contemporaries’ works but not the great man’s. Pisht!

Like the book’s author, it wasn’t always thus. I loathed the bard at school. Along with my classmates I stared baffled and bored at a battered copy of the Dream. I fell in love during a performance of the Scottish play at Theatre Clwyd. It was the appearance of the witches that did it – mesmerising performances from the three actresses. If you’re tiring of my waffling, please do bear with. I share because Beth Miller opens her book with her ‘switched on’ moment, also during a performance: a charming, and funny, anecdote from her teenage years and it sets the tone for the book perfectly.

If you’re a fan already you’ll love this book and if you’re not it could persuade you to give old Shakie a bash. It’s wonderful.

For The Love of Shakespeare is not designed to be read cover to cover – though I did, ‘cos I’m geeky – but to be dipped in as and when. Nor is it designed for the super-serious scholar. Right up my alley then.

The first 50-odd pages are rammed with background information – gems on the man himself, the times, his world. Did you know George Bernard Shaw wasn’t a fan and would have liked to dig Will up and throw stones at him? Me neither.

After the introduction Miller divides the guide into three main sections: the Comedies, the Histories and the Tragedies; with shorter chapters on the bard’s poetry, the apocryphal plays (those whose authorship is in dispute) and his legacy.

The plot of each play is explained in conversational English, followed with the plot in a nutshell – a phrase invented by Shakespeare along with a zillion others we use today, many of which Miller shares. These nutshell plots are often hilarious. Of Antony and Cleopatra Miller writes: ‘Antony learns the hard way that mixing business with pleasure is a bad idea.’ And of Macbeth: McGame of Thrones meets The Apprentice, with knives. Plot summaries are followed by other notable characters and a body count. There are ‘Did You Know?’ sections and quotable lines, and peppered throughout are interviews with people closely associated with Shakespeare today (actors, directors, academics and the like) which are also utterly delightful.

Not only is the information that Miller has lovingly and painstakingly researched fascinating, she delivers her material in such a warm and witty style whether you’re a Will fan or not it’s an entertaining read. Perfect for a quick overview for not-too-keen young students – I’ll certainly encourage my son to read Miller’s thoughts on the plays he’s studying (Romeo & Juliet, another of my favourites, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – definitely not one of my favourites, and Macbeth. Love) – and for someone who’s perhaps being dragged to the theatre reluctantly. And for those already smitten there’s plenty of fresh material.

A witty, informed guide infused with love and a healthy dash of irreverence. Fab-u-lous.

My thanks to the publisher, Summersdale and TBC (Facebook Group); I was given a book in return for an honest review.

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2016: Brilliant books, according to me

In common with many people, 2016 has been a tricky and often difficult year for me but the pleasure and stimulation (intellectual, emotional and creative) I receive from reading has remained constant. Thank goodness for books. Beautiful books.

Since I began this blog in 2010 it has become customary to share my favourite reads as the year draws to its close. They are not necessarily works first published in the year; they are not necessarily prize winners (though sometimes they are) and they come from a wide range of genres. I’m an eclectic reader and it’s a very personal list. The following impressed me enormously. In no particular order:

Fiction

Bashed up proof copy. BigFella read & also loved. And dropped it in the bath.This Must Be The Place, Maggie O’Farrell

A huge canvas; an intimate and expansive examination of a marriage.  Quite simply genius.

 

Animals, Emma Jane Unsworthimg_2608

A tale of two not-quite-ready-to-be-grown-up 30somethings, this book made me laugh and cry in recognition. Unsworth writes with enormous wit and compassion, and an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of female friendship. Brilliant.

img_2614The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett

With its satisfyingly complex structure this novel explores three possible outcomes of the lives of two Cambridge undergraduates who meet – or not – in the 1950s. Spanning 50 years, it is involving, rich and clever.

 

We Go Around in the Night and Are Consumed by Fire, Jules Grantimg_2609

One of the reasons I love this novel is because it vividly portrays a world I hitherto knew little about: the female criminal gangs of contemporary Manchester. The voices of gang leader, Donna, and her lover’s daughter Ror, are raw and, surprisingly, poetic. Stunning.

img_2615Summertime, Vanessa Lafaye

A historical love story centred around a true event, a hurricane, in 1930s Florida. The veterans’ tale is a shocking and shameful blemish on American history, brought vividly and compassionately to life. Thrilling and sad.

 

Stargazing, Kate Glanvilleimg_2616

A warm and touching family drama exploring serious issues like family breakup, domestic abuse and falling for the right person. Moving.

img_2612Sandlands, Rosy Thorton

A collection of sixteen diverse tales set in and around one coastal village in Suffolk.  Poignant, unsettling and often extremely funny. Magical.

 

 

Wake, Anna Hopeimg_2613

There are many books covering the Great War but few are as powerful and memorable as this one. Pegged to the search for the Unknown Soldier Wake covers three women’s stories.  Unforgettable.

51d7b-eedl-_sx318_bo1204203200_Where Love Lies, Julie Cohen

This has all the fabulous Cohen trademarks: warmth, insight, tenderness, and it really stands out. It was shamefully overlooked on its release in my humble opinion. I suspect this is because the hook is impossible to talk about without spoilers. Suffice to say: read it. It’s wonderful. Poignant and tender.

 

Non-fiction

The Outrun, Amy Liptrotimg_2606

A searing, honest, unsentimental account of one woman’s recovery from alcoholism and the transformative power of nature and home. I want to visit remote Scottish islands (despite the brutal weather) after reading this book. Outstanding.

img_2611Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s history of activism and social change over the past 50 years (first published in 2005 – revised and updated in 2016) is as important now as it ever was. A case for hope, arguably we need it now more than ever.

 

There we have it. Now it only remains for me to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2017 is a good one.

Laura x

Book Review: This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell

51bLYEeNwHL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Those of you who read my posts, tweets, and follow me on other social media platforms will know that I am a HUGE fan of Maggie O’Farrell’s work, so you can imagine my excitement when I received an ARC of This Must Be The Place from über-blogger Anne Williams. Thank you, lovely Anne!

I first encountered Maggie O’Farrell’s work many years ago through my monthly subscription to glossy mag, Red. (Forgive the formality of the full name. I don’t know her so ‘Maggie’ seems overly familiar and using her surname only, whilst a convention, feels too formal for a woman whose soul I feel I have a window into on account of her writing). A copy of My Lover’s Lover was included in the shrink-wrapped package. It sat on my bedside table for ages – I am crazy mad about the late, great Bernice Rubens and at the time was working my way through her books – but when I did pick up My Lover’s Lover, I enjoyed it immensely and sought out her debut: After You’d Gone, which I adored. Ever since, I have waited eagerly for each new MO. How’s an abbreviation? And if there are any publishers listening in, I guess this goes to show that giving books away for free – paperbacks – really can bring in new readers. I’m less convinced about Kindle because it must be easy to forget they’re there, on your machine.

Back to Ms O’Farrell’s (better still?) novels. They are all great, but if I had to choose I’d say my favourites were: After You’d Gone and The Hand That First Held Mine.

Until now.

OMG, This Must Be The Place is bloody brilliant. Swearie good.

Crossing continents and three decades, it’s an expansive, sweeping, epic-yet-intimate story of a group of interrelated people. Told from multiple points of view, at the centre of the maelstrom is Daniel, a complex, flawed, beautiful man who’s made a bit of a hash of his life. In less assured, and frankly genius hands, this could have been a dog’s dinner. Instead, it is a glorious study of a marriage, people struggling to find their place in this messy but often wonderful world. Brim-full of fascinating characters (a reclusive film star; a stammering boy; an elderly woman who has recently left her husband; a film-maker’s assistant; I could go on), psychological insight and vivid storytelling, I found that as I read each section I didn’t want it to finish; I wanted to discover more about this particular character’s story and yet, simultaneously, I wanted to find out how others were faring since I’d seen them last.

No review can really do this novel justice – certainly no review I can write. So, I’ll leave by saying: Read it. It is divine.

The Official Blurb:
Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway.
He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?

This Must Be The Place is released on 17 May. Buy it here. Or at your local bookshop.

Guest post – Writing Jeanne Eagels: Unlocking the Enigma by Tara Hanks

Today, it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce readers to novelist, biographer, reviewer, blogger and all round good egg, Tara Hanks. As well as reviewing for respected mags like For Books’ Sake, running her own blog, penning articles and writing books, Tara raises two lovely boys. We met many years ago now – through the hagsharlotsheroines project – and so it’s fitting that Tara writes about one of her heroines in her latest book Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed. Take it away, Tara.

Jeanne Eagels A Life RevealedI first heard of Jeanne Eagels through another tragic star, and heroine of my second novel. Marilyn Monroe wanted to play Sadie Thompson in Rain, the role that Eagels made immortal. I referenced her twice in The Mmm Girl, but she remained a mystery. What did Lee Strasberg, godfather of Method acting, see in Marilyn that reminded him of Jeanne?
My previous books were fiction, but closely based on fact. Since I discovered blogging, however, I’ve come to enjoy writing articles and reviews – initially to promote my novels – but as I grew more confident, I began covering a wider range of subjects, including literature, art, music and film.
One of the benefits of writing about a subject as famous as Monroe is that there are plenty of experts out there. Thanks to the internet, I was able to connect with them despite geographical barriers. One of the Monroe authors I’ve got to know is Eric M. Woodard, whom I first contacted around ten years ago when I ordered a signed copy of his first book, Hometown Girl. We stayed in touch through various fansites and on social media.
Eric is a native of Florida, although he recently moved to Palm Springs, California. An accomplished graphic designer, he has worked as a spokesman for the estate of the late William Travilla, costumier to everyone from Marilyn to the stars of TV’s Dallas. In 2013, Eric wrote an article for Examiner.com, ‘Marilyn Monroe and Rain: The Project That Never Came to Be’, based on archive material from the ill-fated production. While researching Monroe’s lost role, Eric became interested in Jeanne Eagels, the hallowed actress who started it all.
That summer, Eric asked me to read a draft first chapter for a proposed biography on Eagels. I was fascinated, and made some suggestions which led to a contract with Bearmanor Media, an independent publisher dedicated to uncovering Hollywood’s forgotten history. It was then that Eric invited me to co-write Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed.
BackCoverCropWhereas Monroe has inspired hundreds of books, there was only one biography of Jeanne: Eddie Doherty’s The Rain Girl, published in 1930, a year after her death. It was initially serialized in Liberty magazine (the Heat of its day), with this tagline: “Genius and Drunkard—Artist and Hellion—Poet and Devil—She Battled to the Stars!”
Although quite well-researched, Doherty’s account was critically panned, drawing accusations of sensationalism from Jeanne’s friends and family. Almost thirty years would pass before her life was given the Hollywood treatment. Novelist John Fante – whose tales of Los Angeles lowlife would make him a posthumous cult figure – was among a team of writers assigned to bring Jeanne’s story to the big screen.
Unfortunately, the resulting biopic bore scant resemblance to the truth. Jeanne, as played by Kim Novak, was depicted as a former carnival dancer who clawed her way to the top, when in fact she had enjoyed a long, distinguished theatrical career. Worst of all, it was falsely alleged that she had ‘stolen’ the role of Sadie Thompson from another actress, who then committed suicide. The cruel, unfair perception of Eagels as a delusional, drug-crazed diva was thus cemented in the public imagination.
The lion’s share of research was conducted by my writing partner, Eric. With most of Jeanne’s peers long dead, he delved into the vaults. ‘Newspaper archives and genealogical websites are the key,’ he told me in a recent email. ‘Lots of printouts, three-hole-punched, and chronologically placed into notebooks. Gone through with a highlight marker, and then either written out on pads of paper (my preference), or inputted directly into the computer.’ We also read widely in order to better understand the times in which Jeanne lived.
Some of the misunderstandings about Jeanne were propagated by the actress herself. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the mass media was still in its formative stage, and fact-checking was a haphazard process. Eagels would often embellish her humble background – she was born in 1890, to a large, working-class family in Kansas City – and her flair for drama wasn’t confined to the stage. She was a remarkably eloquent interviewee, whose stubborn independence was often mistaken for egotism. Nonetheless, her highly personal approach to acting anticipated Lee Strasberg’s ‘Method’, and he would acknowledge her performance in Rain as a seminal influence.
While writing her story, I learned about Broadway in its golden age, as well as the early days of silent film and the rise of talking pictures. While many movies from this era are now lost, two of her early performances can be viewed online at Thanhouser.org, while her transition to sound in The Letter – has been digitally restored, and is now available on DVD.
The theatre was Jeanne’s first love, and she would never play Sadie Thompson on the screen. Gloria Swanson beat her to it – and after Jeanne’s death, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth would star in remakes of Rain. It remained a staple of American theatre for half a century, but it now seems rather dated. Every actress who took on the role of Sadie would be compared to Eagels, and was inevitably found wanting.
As with so many stars who die young, the fiercest debate about Jeanne is focused on the circumstances of her untimely death. She was first believed to have died of alcoholic psychosis, but unconfirmed reports suggested she was also using heroin. It was later revealed that she had been under the care of a controversial doctor for many years – in fact, she died in the waiting room of his exclusive Manhattan practice. It is with that doctor, we believe, the answer lies.
Our book also includes an index, and a full bibliography which details all references used. Eric also acquired over a hundred photographs, some not seen since first publication. Over the next six months, he would send me draft chapters, which I then polished and expanded – adding my own research and commentary. We then spent another six months revising the manuscript before submitting to the publisher. At every stage, it has been a partnership of equals.
As we worked with editors, new information came our way – firstly as the archives of the Kansas City Star, Jeanne’s hometown newspaper, were opened; and secondly, when Eric acquired an archive of around fifty original photographs at auction. Finally, fellow biographer Michelle Morgan – author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed – wrote a preface to our book.
Two years in the making, Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed was published in June 2015, on the eve of what would have been her 125th birthday. Unveiling the mysteries of Jeanne’s life (and dispelling the myths) has been a mammoth task, and we have hopefully served a measure of belated justice to a brilliant, complex woman.

About Tara

authorpicTara Hanks is the author of two novels: Wicked Baby (2004), based on the events of the Profumo Affair; and The Mmm Girl (2007), about the life of Marilyn Monroe, as she might have told it herself; and a biography, Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed (2015, with Eric M. Woodard.) Tara also writes about literature, art, music and film at For Books’ Sake, ES Updates, and Art Decades magazine. Find out more here.

To buy Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed please click HERE.

Thanks, Tara, and Good Luck with the book. Can’t wait to read my copy.

 

 

Guest post: USPs, an author’s biggest challenge?

I’m delighted to welcome fellow Accent author Gilli Allan to my blog today to talk about her work, which she defines as ‘Romance for Grown Ups’, and finding her USP. Welcome Gilli.

Cover FOFIf any of my school teachers were still alive – and still remembered me – (the latter is as unlikely as the former) I suspect they’d be amazed to discover that I have four published novels to my name, a fifth in the pipeline and a sixth in progress. I was an indifferent pupil, useless at maths, physics and chemistry, poor at French and geography, a bit better at biology and history, and OK (ish) at English lit’ and lang’. As for sport – gym, hockey, tennis, netball, cricket – we won’t even go there. The only subject I unequivocally excelled at was art. It wasn’t until I was well into my middle years, when writing and researching my book TORN, that I realised I’m dyslexic. Admittedly I’m on the mild end of this spectrum condition, but there is no doubt about it.

All the above is my long-winded way of finding an excuse for my various failures – dislike of the telephone, inability to tell left from right, poor memory and fear of instructions. Dyslexics in general, and it’s certainly true of me, are bad at decoding. For example, initialism -“a group of initial letters used as an abbreviation for a name or expression, each letter being pronounced” – is the bane of my life. For a long time I thought a USP was something to do with computers. I’d written my first book (in the modern, online era) and was baffled by the advice that a USP was something I needed to find. It took time for my inefficient brain to grasp – and, more importantly, remember – that USP refers to a Unique Selling Point. What I needed was not a gizmo to attach to the PC, it was a short pithy sound-bite to describe my style of writing. A phrase I could use when promoting myself – to differentiate mine from the mass of other novels out there, aimed at women.

When I first started in this business there were no authors I’d identified whose novels were similar to mine (or visa versa). At the time you either wrote “Romance” – related to which there were a few other sub-genres, like Sagas, Historicals, or Bonk-busters (Chick Lit was still just a glint in some marketing man’s eye) – or you wrote ‘Women’s Fiction’ which had an air of the ‘literary’ about it, as it dealt with issues and gave no guarantee of a ‘happy ever after’ ending. I felt I straddled these two camps.

9781783756872_FCI wrote then, and still write, romantic contemporary fiction about real women, in real and challenging situations. They deal with the slings and arrows of life in whatever way they can. They, and the people around them, are not necessarily noble or perfect, rich or drop-dead gorgeous. They don’t always make good decisions. They trip and they fall. But there will always be a developing love theme within the story. And in the end, though there may not be the Cinderella transformation scene, there will be a positive and upbeat conclusion.

In the last ten years publishing has gone through a revolution. It is now easier and cheaper to get books out there in front of the public. As a result, a new wave of women’s fiction is emerging, which I can link myself to – novels which have a developing love story at the core, but which touch on more challenging issues than the drama of getting tipsy, breaking your heel, or not being able to afford a designer frock. Before anyone starts shouting, I know I’m being unfair, but I am dramatising just to make the point!

God bless Jo Jo Moyes and Jenny Harper and Linda Gillard and many many many more. We all write – and here comes the USP – ROMANCE FOR GROWN-UPS!

Gilli’s latest novel, FLY OR FALL, is out now. Here’s the blurb:

Wife and mother, Nell, fears change, but it is forced upon her by her manipulative husband, Trevor. Finding herself in a new world of flirtation and casual infidelity, her principles are undermined and she’s tempted. Should she emulate the behaviour of her new friends or stick with the safe and familiar?
But everything Nell has accepted at face value has a dark side. Everyone – even her nearest and dearest – has been lying. She’s even deceived herself. The presentiment of disaster, first felt as a tremor at the start of the story, rumbles into a full blown earthquake. When the dust settles, nothing is as it previously seemed. And when an unlikely love blossoms from the wreckage of her life, she believes it is doomed.
The future, for the woman who feared change, is irrevocably altered. But has she been broken, or has she transformed herself?

About Gilli

GilliGilli Allan started to write in childhood, a hobby only abandoned when real life supplanted the fiction. Gilli didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but, after just enough exam passes to squeak in, she attended Croydon Art College.
She didn’t work on any of the broadsheets, in publishing or television. Instead she was a shop assistant, a beauty consultant and a barmaid before landing her dream job as an illustrator in advertising. It was only when she was at home with her young son that Gilli began writing seriously. Her first two novels were quickly published, but when her publisher ceased to trade, Gilli went independent.
Over the years, Gilli has been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and a driving force behind the community shop in her Gloucestershire village. Still a keen artist, she designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Gilli is particularly delighted to have recently gained a new mainstream publisher – Accent Press. FLY OR FALL is the second book to be published in the three book deal.

To connect to Gilli:
http://twitter.com/gilliallan (@gilliallan)
https://www.facebook.com/GilliAllan.AUTHOR
http://gilliallan.blogspot.co.uk/
To Buy Gilli’s Books:
TORN MyBook.to/gilliallansTORN (universal) or
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Torn-Gilli-Allan-ebook/dp/B00R1FQ1QE)

FLY OR FALL- myBook.to/GilliAllan (universal)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fly-Fall-Gilli-Allan-ebook/dp/B00XXZJ43S/

Thanks for coming by, Gilli, and best of luck with your books.