“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

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“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban” by J. K. Rowling (1999)

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azkaban“Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.”

The third installment of the Harry Potter series is generally, I’ve found, considered to be people’s favourite. I think it’s probably mine. It also marks a change in how the series was viewed, as this is the last one that seemed to arrive with little fanfare. After this, the series had really kicked off in the public conciousness and book releases became big events, getting bigger with each novel. But this book isn’t the turning point in the story, that’s really the next one, but it does, in it’s own way, change the game for everyone involved. Let’s talk about this, but first, an obligatory summary.

If you haven’t been living under a rock since the mid-nineties, you’ll know that Harry is now in his third year at Hogwarts and after a disasterous summer which involves him inflating his aunt, he spends the rest of his summer at the Leaky Cauldron pub and wandering Diagon Alley, exploring the shops. He thought he’d be expelled for use of underage magic, but the Ministry seem to be turning a blind eye to it. They just seem happy that he’s alive.

For as it turns out there has been an escape from Azkaban, the wizarding prison. A notorious criminal called Sirius Black has got out and is now roaming Britain. He’s so dangerous even the Muggles have been told about him. Considered Voldemort’s second, he’s back for blood – specifically, Harry’s. Supposedly determined to finish up what Voldemort couldn’t, the wizarding population strives to find Black and protect Harry at all costs. Harry, meanwhile, is trying not to let the idea that he’s about to be murdered get in the way of his new classes, trying to save Hagrid’s pet hippogriff, and winning the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup. It’s going to be a very interesting year…

So, why is this book the best one? Well, I think for one thing we step up in maturity another notch, no one dies (the only book in the series to make that claim), Voldemort isn’t lurking in the background like a Dungbomb about to go off, and the whole wizarding universe is blown so much wider. We get introduced to great and important characters for the first time – Remus Lupin, Cornelius Fudge, Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew – and we find out more about Harry’s parents, crime and punishment and magical creatures. Prophecies are introduced for the first time, setting us up for how important they’ll become two books down the line. Dementors, the Marauder’s Map, more reasons as to why Snape hates Harry – they’re all here now for us to enjoy.

But I think primarily it is the lack of Voldemort that makes this book so good. I’m not faulting him, he’s an amazingly terrifying character and very well rounded, but take him out and we finally get to see Hogwarts a little more like it’s supposed to be. More than any other, this installment shows us the students being students. We get to see more of their lessons, all of their exams, and the B-story is really about winning the Quidditch Cup, something that is actually fairly trivial, but shows how seriously some schools can take their inter-house rivalries. The characters feel their ages, with their excitement at getting to visit Hogsmeade and gorge themselves silly in the sweet shop. They have less pressure to save the world this time round. Malfoy is particularly shown as being an idiotic thirteen-year-old, given that he can’t ever seem to let go of the fact that Harry fainted when he saw a Dementor. I think Malfoy has about three lines in this book that he repeats indefinitely: “My father will hear about this”, “My arm really hurts,” and, “Watch out for the Dementors, Potter!”

I have a few unanswered questions about this book, but not as many as the previous ones. For example, if Sirius shows up on the Marauder’s Map, why did Fred and George never notice (or comment on) Ron sharing a bed with Peter Pettigrew for the last two years? Was the Shrieking Shack really built and immediately considered haunted, or was it bewitched so people thought it had always been there? Did the Care of Magical Creatures class look at anything other than hippogriffs and flobberworms? How did Hermione get 320% in her Muggle Studies exam? What does a Boggart look like when no one’s looking at it? How did Fudge ever get elected?

The explosion of the world in this book is, I think, what really makes it people’s favourites. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but this feels like the first time we get a proper look at the backstory. Remus and Sirius allow us to look at what James and Lily’s time at Hogwarts may have been like, and the discussions of Azkaban show a wider world containing more dark wizards than just Voldemort. He’ll be back with full power in the next book, so maybe this book just feels like the last time we could all be happy. There are dark times coming, and I for one am very excited.

“Affinity” by Sarah Waters (1999)

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affinity“I was never so frightened as I am now.”

I occasionally catch myself saying, perhaps somewhat boastfully, that I’ll read anything. I’m usually only moments later forced to eat my words. Sarah Waters is, of course, an author whose name I know but historical fiction is something that I would never buy for myself. Fortunately, for Valentine’s Day this year, the other half and I bought one another books that we loved for the other to read, in an attempt I suppose to get to know each other better and understand where we’re coming from, via a literary perspective.

And so this is how I found myself suddenly reading Waters. Affinity is not one of hers I knew (although every time I’ve stepped into a bookshop in the last few years I swear I’ve seen at least ten copies of The Little Stranger on display) so I went into it basically blind, going only on the blurb.

Affinity transports us to London in the 1870s, a city shrouded in thick, choking fog and a class system so divided that it may already be the Morlocks and Eloi. The story has two narrators. The first is Margaret Prior, a well-to-do young lady who is struggling to deal with the sudden death of her father. She is perhaps a little disturbed and, to take her mind from her boring life – and to escape the endless wedding preparations of her sister Pris – becomes a Lady Visitor to the women’s prison of Millbank, attending to some of the inmates and hearing their stories, giving them a chance to speak out. One of these is Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who has been imprisoned for attacking a young girl and killing the lady she lived with. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and that the actions were performed by the spirit folk, in particular one brutish and dangerous spirit called Peter Quick.

Selina is the second narrator, although her chapters reveal what happened before she was put in gaol, explaining how she got herself mixed up in the sorry mess and how she developed her skills as a spiritualist. She learns tricks to make people believe that she is summoning those from beyond the mortal realm, but there’s a certain ambiguity about the whole thing – is she entirely a fraud, or is there some truth to what she says?

Margaret is captivated by Selina and, in a state of emotional weakness, begins to fall in love with her. Selina reciprocates her feelings and the soon neither can sleep or function because they are consumed with thoughts of the others. Selina begins using her powers to send gifts to Margaret, who is at first scared, but later realises that she cannot live without Selina. A plan begins to form, but escaping from gaol is not easy – not even with the guide of the spirits…

It’s a slow burner and takes a long while to get going, but once it does, it’s definitely enjoyable, and the twist at the end is a wonderful pay off. I had no idea where it was going until it happened, although I had a suspicion that, thankfully, turned out to be wrong. There is much ambiguity within the novel, both in the relationship between the main characters (this is, of course, Victorian London, and lesbianism isn’t exactly freely discussed) and in the talents of the spiritualists. Is Peter Quick real, or is he entirely constructed from Selina’s mind? There’s potentially a case for both sides of the argument, and Waters is certainly not going to give away all the answers.

The book also is notable for containing very few male characters of any importance. There are probably only five or six that recieve names and any sort of description, compared to the scores of women prisoners, wardens, family members, visitors to Selina’s “dark circles” and servants that populate the novel. This merely adds another reminder to us that this is a story about women and their struggle. Britain at this time is not yet as liberal as it will become (and, let’s be honest, we’ve still got quite some way to go), and the stress of hiding her true self does some dreadful things to Margaret. I’d be hard-pushed to call it a love story. It shows the more dangerous, but just as realistic side of love – all-consuming, all-powerful and prone to making even the most innocent-seeming people perform deeds that don’t align with their moral code.

All in all, it’s captivating enough to be a page turner, but don’t go into it for a quick read. The descriptions are great, and the characters realised enough – some more than others, of course, depending on their narrative importance – and the dense text sucks you into the horror that is Millbank prison. A nice touch is also the occasional mention of the cloying fog that shrouds the city, further emphasising that London is all about secrets and there is always something hidden from view. So while it’s a somewhat claustrophobic novel, and I wouldn’t say it’s particularly happy either, it’s well-written, powerful and generally a very interesting read.