Summer Shorts

My attention span this month is not up to long reviews, but I did read some notable books  that I’d like to mention at least briefly.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Going in with high expectations for this generally acclaimed retelling of The Tempest, I found it disappointing. Re-setting Shakespeare’s tale of captivity, revenge, and freedom in a modern-day prison acting program was clever, but I found Atwood’s short novel was too dependent on such ingenious ideas and not enough on real, convincing characters. And the denouement was way too fast; what might work on stage feels hasty and contrived in a novel.

While there may be some narrative re-castings of dramatic originals that are successful, I think it’s a hard thing to do, and much rarer than those that go in the other direction (from page to stage or screen). In this case I’d be interested to see a screen version. Where I found Atwood’s descriptions falling flat, some well-done visuals and strong acting could bring her vision to life.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Lately, some historical novels have set my teeth on edge with their sloppy use of language and other period details. I don’t know quite what it is, because I’m certainly no expert on such things, and often other knowledgeable readers and reviewers seem bothered not at all by the things that make me cringe. But I do know when there’s a book that gets past my own personal alarm bells — and I’m glad to say that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was one of these. First-time author Gowar rings some charming changes on familiar motifs in a tale of merchants, courtesans, and mermaids in eighteenth-century London. While some narrative threads were left hanging, in general Gowar moved deftly between high-, middle- and low-life settings, and wrote with a zest and originality that makes me very interested to read whatever she comes up with next.

Fantasy lovers, as well as those allergic to magical elements in fiction, will both want to know one thing: is the mermaid real? Yes, and no, and maybe. Dealing with this question is one of Gowar’s achievements, and you’ll have to read the book to see how she does it.

Death of a Unicorn by Peter Dickinson

The work of the late Peter Dickinson was never a great favorite of mine, but in latter years I have come to appreciate it more and more. Now I have finally gotten around to reading one of his crime novels with this, a recent reprint from Small Beer Press. Not exactly a detective story, it’s a psychological drama in which the narrator (an aristocrat who has found success in writing romance novels to save her estate from financial collapse) looks back at an incident from her younger days and finally puts together the puzzle of what happened to her first lover, killed inexplicably in South America after a few short months of happiness.

There was lots to enjoy in the Mitford-esque trappings of a stately home with a dysfunctional family, and the setting within the publishing world. The one weakness that really bothered me was the trope of a smart, talented woman being caught up in a relationship with an unattractive, abusive man, a relationship that indelibly shapes her life even after he’s gone. The male fantasy that women will adore them whatever crap they pull is one that I wish could be overcome, in literature as in life.

No Name by Wilkie Collins

I’ve enjoyed several of Wilkie Collins’s suspenseful novels, and this is considered to be another one of his best. Written between The Woman in White and The Moonstone, it turns on a legal peculiarity: the status of illegitimate children in nineteenth-century England. When a series of unfortunate events robs a couple of gently-brought-up girls of their inheritance, they deal with it in very different ways. As one patiently suffers her fate, the other is determined to get her own back, at whatever cost.

The premise is ingenious (and considered highly immoral at the time of publication), the characters promising, but I could have done with less overt moralizing of the “Now she must decide between her good and evil sides!” variety. The psychology of the corrupting effect of vengefulness was clear enough without beating us over the head with it. The novel also dragged on too long for my taste, then wrapped up with a hasty romantic ending of the most unabashedly coincidental and melodramatic sort. An enjoyable romp overall, but lacking in subtlety and with uneven pacing.

14 thoughts on “Summer Shorts

  1. I don’t usually care for re-imaginings either but I did enjoy Hag Seed. Yes it was improbable (especially the final scenes) but I thought some parts were such fun.

    No Name is one of the Wilkie Collins books I have yet to read. He can be rather hit and miss once you go beyond his big two (Moonstone and Woman in White)


    1. Yup, I can see that from this one and Armadale. He has some good ideas but long parts are skimmable.

      It wasn’t exactly the improbability of Hag-Seed that bothered me; it was more that I could not believe in the characters, especially the prison inmates. They just did not seem like real people to me. But maybe they were intentionally “stagey” and not novelistically developed. I do wonder if they would work better as film characters.


  2. I really love the idea of the Hogarth Shakespeare series and all the big name authors they’ve gotten to do retellings, but they have been hit or miss for me. Hagseed is one that’s still on my to-read list. I’m sorry to hear the execution wasn’t as good as the idea!


    1. Well, that’s just my opinion. Plenty of other people loved it. This is the only one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series I’ve read, so I can’t compare to others, but the consensus opinion seems to be that this is one of the best.


  3. A pleasure to read, your post. I doubt I would read any of these, who knows, but you were clever and on point. I laughed (and not) when you want the trope of the woman falling for the abusive type done over!
    I was tempted by the Wilkie Collins book since I have read The Moonstone and Woman in White. But so far I admire the first, and enjoyed the second, but UNEVEN seems to be the word that describes him well.


    1. Collins is uneven. It keeps him from being up there in the first rank of Victorian novelists, even as there are things he does really well. And his books are long so it is a time commitment, unless you are going to do some judicious skimming!


  4. I loved No Name, though I agree with you it was unevenly paced. But I found the crazy melodrama absolutely wonderful and the cat and mouse game between Mrs. Lecount and Captain Wragge was great fun to read.

    I liked but didn’t love The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. I’m not sure I liked the fantastical element of it or if it was necessary. But I will read her next novel for sure.


    1. The fantastical element was a little oddly grafted in, another thing that sometimes grates on me. In this case it didn’t, but I can understand it not being to the taste of some.

      Mrs. Lecount and Captain Wragge were very entertaining, I agree. Collins is excellent at writing villains in various shades of gray.


  5. Your comment on whether the mermaid is real in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has me intrigued. I always want the mermaid to be real! Perhaps I will read it and find out… Wilkie Collins is another author I’ve not yet read but should some day.


  6. I’ve just read John Dickinson’s We and was reminded that I’d intended to get back to his father’s works, so this ‘short’ review was timely, though I’m not sure I would search out this title, for all its tempting title.

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the Atwood as I was very much looking forward to it. Perhaps later rather than sooner, then!


    1. I didn’t know John was Peter’s son. Did you mention that in your review and I missed it?

      Please don’t take my word for it on the Atwood. It’s a quick read to fit in when you have a mo. and I’d love to hear what you think of it!


      1. I don’t think I did mention the link between the two authors in this review, probably in a previous review of one of Peter’s novel (The Ropemaker, possibly). I will of course try the Atwood, having read so much about it, but I’ve also got here Penelope piece to read, and of course there’s Circe (which I got after your WW2018 post) and, oooo, a heck of a lot others…


        1. As always! And all worth reading. I hope that at some time the mood will strike, the time will be ripe, and the right book will jump into your hand.


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