“Romeo And/Or Juliet” by Ryan North (2016)

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“As we now know, William Shakespeare (1564 AD-whenever he died) was well known for borrowing from existing literature when writing his plays.”

Who remembers “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from childhood? Goosebumps did a solid range, and I had one based on a Famous Five adventure – you failed if you run out of ginger beer rations. If both dot-to-dot and colouring books got adapted for adults, then I don’t see why these shouldn’t come back too. Fortunately, Ryan North is way ahead of me, turning the classic play Romeo and Juliet on its head and letting us decide how it all plays out in fair Verona.

I’ve read this six times now, and every time produced an entirely different story. We all know the original: Romeo meets Juliet, they fall in love but their families had one another, there’s some fighting, and both the heroes die. Tale as old as him. Here, however, I several times managed to end the feud between the Montague and Capulet families without killing anyone (once within fifteen minutes of starting), somehow turned into the Nurse and took on a side quest designed like a point-and-click game, was killed by Benvolio, and even have Juliet end up marrying Orlando, who isn’t even in this play. At one point I wished to be turned into the glove on Juliet’s hand, only for my wish to actually be granted. At the beginning, you pick to play as either Romeo or Juliet, and there are options to swap between the two. You can follow through the play was Shakespeare intended, but where’s the fun in that? I still haven’t.

The best of it is that, from bits I gleaned while finding my passages, there is still so much more to explore. You can unlock a secret character to play as someone else. There are further Choose Your Own Adventure stories laced inside this one, with versions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to play. There are endings where Romeo and Rosaline end up together, Romeo and Juliet destroy Verona with robots, and at least one where Juliet doesn’t kill herself when she thinks Romeo is dead but instead kills everyone else. And yes, the original one is in here too. None of these are spoilers particularly, as I couldn’t tell you how to get to any of those endings, and there must be at least another forty or so.

While there are some mentions of the original text, either obliquely or in full, it’s mostly updated to modern slang with a very casual style, which is all the more hilarious. Romeo is a whiny teenage boy who is obsessed with love, and Juliet, wonderfully, is a muscular, weight-lifting, protein-shake-chugging bodybuilder who can totally take care of herself. From what I gathered, Romeo tends to get the gorier endings, whereas Juliet usually comes out of it alright and ends up doing something ridiculous.

It’s a really fun book, and I think you have to read it several times just to get the most out of it. What happens if Romeo doesn’t go to the party? What happens is Juliet tells Lady Capulet that she won’t marry Paris? What if the lovers abscond to Paris when Romeo is banished and entirely cut off contact with their families? It’s time to find out.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Black Coffee” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1998)

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“Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions.”

Since lock down kicked in, I’ve realised I’m really missing the theatre. I’m not someone who goes particularly regularly – a few times of year at most – but I love it. Musicals, plays, comedies, dramas – what’s not to love? Theatre is second only to books for me as a way to tell a story. It’s there and vivid and right in front of you. If you’ve been on my blog before, you almost certainly know that I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and while people may know her for her novels and be aware that she is responsible for the longest-running play in history – The Mousetrap has only been halted by this bloody lock down – she wrote many other plays. In fact, she is the only female playwright to have three plays on at the same time in London, and she was so revered that when she died, all the theatres in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour in her memory.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to say that in the 1990s, three of her plays were adapted into novels by Charles Osborne. The other two, Spider’s Web and The Unexpected Guest are already on the blog, so it’s time to complete the set. It’s time to enter her first play, Black Coffee.

Notable inventor Sir Claud Amory calls his family into the library after dinner with an announcement. In his safe he had a formula for a powerful new explosive that would change the face of war forever, but now it has gone. The thief, he knows, is in the room. He has already called Hercule Poirot in who will be arriving imminently. Amory offers up a simple option. He will turn the lights off in the room for a short while, the thief can place the stolen formula on the table, and no further questions will be asked. However, once the lights come back up again, the formula – or at least the envelope it was in – has appeared on the table, but the darkness brought death, and now more questions arise, just as Poirot and Hastings turn up on the doorstep. Now there are two puzzles to solve, and a lot of tangled familial relationships to unwind before the answers can be found.

So, it’s a Christie story at her peak. Obviously it’s good. But like with the others, it still lacks something. Reading an adaptation makes you realise quite how much difference there is between prose and scripted story. Most of the action here takes place in a single room, as it would on stage, but here that seems a little unnatural. Quite often you feel like you’re simply reading stage directions, and the mind’s eye can’t help but envision the whole drama unfolding on a stage. In those terms, it still works. The mystery is also particularly engaging, and I only remembered the solution as it drew closer. Christie uses Poirot’s obsession with neatness to assist him once more in solving the plot, but it’s done remarkably well. Unfortunately, because of the stage direction elements of it, some actions are deliberately pointed out to us whereas, in the theatre, we might not have seen them.

The characters are perhaps not quite as fully rounded as some of hers, but with a play you have more limited time to get things across. There’s a deft touch of humour throughout the story, too, as there is in all the best Christie’s. It’s a satisfying solution, with Poirot proven his talents once more. A quick, charming read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Goddess Of Buttercups And Daisies” by Martin Millar (2015)

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“The agora was always busy.”

If I was ever to acquire a time machine, I’d head straight back to Ancient Greece. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in the country now even, I just really love so much of what I read about the place. Most of that, granted, is the myths, monsters and gods, all of which – we assume – didn’t actually exist, which is a shame. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to dive back into that world now and again, so I did.

Playwright Aristophanes is panicking. He’s lost the funding for his next big comic play, the props aren’t funny enough, and he’s constantly being pestered by Luxos, the self-proclaimed best lyric poet in Athens. The fact that Athens has been at war with Sparta for years isn’t helping matters, but Aristophanes is convinced that his play will help change people’s minds and bring about peace. But he wasn’t counting on Laet, a goddess of strife and discord. When she enters a room, everyone in it immediately makes the worst possible decision, and it’s tearing Athens apart.

Athena, the city’s goddess, sends the Amazon Bremusa down to Athens to hunt down Laet and scare her off. She enlists Metris, a permanently happy water nymph who claims to have inherited her mother’s powers to restore happiness and order to nasty situations. However, when it turns out that the only power she actually has is to make buttercups and daisies grow wherever she walks, the problem suddenly doesn’t look so easy to solve.

Will Luxos ever get an audience for his poems? Can Aristophanes ensure his play is a hit and win first prize at the Dionysia festival? And can Metris and Bremusa save the day, without getting distracted by such mundane trivialities as love and revenge?

The novel is a blend of reality and fiction. Aristophanes was a real playwright and the play he’s putting on, Peace, really does exist and is still occasionally performed. In turn, Athena was, of course, really one of the gods, and Bremusa was one of the Amazon women. However, other characters have been inserted into the narrative that are of Millar’s own creation, including Luxos the poet and Metris, the titular goddess.

What Millar does well, though, is to seamlessly blend the mortal world and that of the gods and divine beings together so that they exist in perfect harmony. My favourite thing about the Greek gods has always been that they were so petty and so human in their flaws, meaning that when they meet, real narrative magic happens. In this novel, as in many set at the time, the gods are taken as fact, and indeed few people are ever truly surprised to learn of a deity or nymph walking among them. They have some interesting powers, and are probably the most engaging characters in the book, but that might just be me and my love of mythology. Some of the human characters, particularly Aristophanes and Luxos, are fun too, but most others don’t get enough page time to be fleshed out particularly.

It’s quite funny in places, but a very broad humour.However, Greek humour was broad – much is made of the fact that the play will be deemed a failure if the comedy penises aren’t big enough – so the style fits the era.  It’s also a comment on satire, with Aristophanes’ plays mocking important figures of the time like an ancient Dead Ringers. A jolly little book, worth spending an afternoon with.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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cursed childThe eighth story. Nineteen years later.

Not much compels me to stop one book in favour of another, but the newest installment in the Harry Potter series dropping onto the doormat will do that to a person. So, here it is. Merlin knows when I’ll ever get tickets to see it, so reading it is the next best thing. This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, so let’s just crack on. First, the plot.

No. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you anything.

So, now how did I feel about it? You’re asking a very big question there. I guess primarily, I can’t believe that despite the fact the theatre has been previewing the show for months, and the sheer amount of people involved in it, absolutely nothing leaked. Maybe friends told friends, but the Internet in general managed to keep very quiet.

The one thing I will say is that the opening scene replays the epilogue from Deathly Hallows, so there aren’t really any surprises there. But then it carries on and we get the first new dialogue from these characters since 2007 and I got the most ridiculous goosebumps. You forget in between readings that these stories are magical. It takes a moment to get used to reading it in script form rather than as a novel, but I think I understand why it works as a play. Two plays, in fact. There’s a lot here, and to compress it would be a disaster.

The face (and hair) of one struggling with the state of finishing Cursed Child.

The face (and hair) of one who is struggling with his Cursed Child feelings.

The play somehow is nothing at all like I expected, and yet everything I knew it would be. And you can take that in any way you see fit. I’m trying to work out if I liked it, and I think I did, but there’s a lot in here that requires a lot of processing. It seemingly changes a few of the rules that Rowling had previously established, and added something that I don’t think any of us really expected. And even that feels like saying too much.

Many of the characters we know and love are present and correct. Some of them changed somewhat with time, but their cores remain in tact. The children are great, and occasionally you could have guessed what was going to happen with some of them, but there are some surprises present too. There are, however, some absences that are particularly notable. One old favourite is mentioned, but another has been scrubbed entirely from the text. I know they can’t name everyone, but, well, come on. Sadder still is the reveal of a couple of deaths we’ve missed in the last nineteen years.

My brain keeps playing with the question, “But did you like it?” All I can think is that the staging and casting must be the best the West End has ever seen, as I’ve not seen a single complaint from anyone who happens to have seen the show. It’s magical, but it lacks something. It feels too late, maybe. A sort of, “be careful what you wish for” scenario. We all wanted more from Harry, and now we’ve got it, but is it quite what we hoped we’d get? Already I’ve seen polls on Twitter where people are debating whether to consider this addition canonical or not.

I sound negative, and I’m not really. The emotional wallops are very real and Rowling’s world stands the test of time for its depth, breadth and sheer power. I think it’s just because I’ve read it in three hours. I need to go back through, slower, and get to grips with it. That can be a summer project. I may even return to these pages to give a second review. But for now, I leave you with the most wishy-washy vague thing I’ve ever written.

Read it yourself and form your own opinion. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter, @fellfromfiction. For now though, I need to go and sort myself and my thoughts out.

Mischief managed.

“The Unexpected Guest” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1999)

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The-Unexpected-Guest“It was shortly before midnight on a chilly November evening, and swirls of mist obscured parts of the dark, narrow, tree-lined country road in South Wales, not far from the Bristol Channel whence a foghorn sounded its melancholy boom automatically every few moments.”

You’ll note I’m sure that the date of this book’s release is long after Christie’s death, but there’s a good reason for that. It was originally written as a play in the 1958, penned in four weeks and staged to great acclaim in the West End. Like the previously reviewed Spider’s Web, this is a novelisation of that play, completing the trifecta of plays-to-books that Charles Osborne undertook, the third being Black Coffee.

The novel opens on the foggy night described above when Michael Starkwedder’s car gets stuck in a ditch. Not knowing how he’s going to get out of it, he makes his way to a large nearby house and, finding the french windows open, enters a luxurious study. To his shock, sat in a wheelchair in the middle of the room is a dead man with a gunshot wound in his head.

Finding a light switch, he makes a second surprising discovery – a woman stands in the corner, terrified and holding a gun. She gives her name as Laura Warwick and says the dead man is – or was – her husband, Richard. For the first time in Christie history, it seems an open and shut case. Laura admits to Michael that she killed him, but Michael can’t resist a pretty woman and suggests they concoct a story to save her from arrest.

But perhaps Laura didn’t kill him at all. Maybe she’s covering for someone else, but why, and more importantly who? Everyone in the house seems relatively unworried by Richard’s death, and everyone seems very keen to let Michael, and the police, know that they know who didn’t do it, leading to a situation where everyone seems to be willing to claim they were responsible…

Brevity is the name of the game here. It’s a short book, as I said originally a play, and it’s the one of the three that sounds least like it’s still a play. The dialogue is sharp, and while some of the action does ring a bit of directions for actors (and a couple of things that the audience are meant to see but none of the characters do jar a little in the narration), it remains very obviously Christie. She’s at her prime here, having written this after her last play, Verdict, flopped. It feels like a “take that!” to all her critics, and more power to her.

It also brings in perhaps two of my favourite policemen in the series. Inspector Thomas is sharp and sarcastic, but clearly very efficient. Sergeant Cadwallader provides light comic relief, being a man who is far more interested in poetry than police work. Thomas is clearly irritated by his tendencies to quote poetry at the least appropriate moments, and to write his own poems when he should be taking down witness statements.

The novel also contains one of my favourite Christie lines of all:

“What it comes down to is this. Men are really the sensitive sex. Women are tough. Men can’t take murder in their stride. Women apparently can.”

It’s a twist on the old suggestion and one that I happen to actually agree with. The first part, at least – I’ve never brushed up against murder in real life, so I couldn’t comment on that. Although I have a feeling that I’d be the one breathing into a paper bag in the corner while my female friends dealt with the situation effectively.

Although it may have been tweaked by someone else, it’s so definitely Christie, that it can’t help but be a wonder. The twists are incredible, and the solution seems to flip-flop repeatedly, the truth being outed when you least expect it.

The back of the book contains the review, “Like a martini – crisp, dry, sophisticated, habit-forming, ever-so-slightly dated”. That’s absolutely the epitome of what Christie is about, and this book is one of the best examples of that.