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The Gap of Time – Book Oxygen Review

The Gap of Time

Jeanette Winterson

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Retold

Published by Hogarth 1/6 October 2015

320pp, hardback, £16.99/$25

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Hogarth is publishing ‘cover versions’ of some of the bard’s greatest works under the title, The Hogarth Shakespeare. A number of famous authors, including Tracy Chevalier, Margaret Atwood, Edward St Aubyn, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson and Jo Nesbo, will each retell a Shakespearean play in the form of a novel, in celebration of Shakespeare’s reputation as a re-teller of well-known tales.

First into the breach is Jeanette Winterson who takes on The Winter’s Tale, renaming it The Gap of Time, a quote from the end of the play. It is set in London, Paris and New Bohemia in the present day or perhaps the near future. The author helpfully provides a synopsis of the play and main characters before launching in to her own version of the story which she says has special significance for her. As an adopted child, she empathizes with the abandoned Perdita, and says the play has haunted her for many years.

At first the novel feels clumsy and awkward as Winterson introduces the main characters in their new settings and guises. Leontes becomes Leo, a brutal, bullish man who owns a successful hedge fund company called Sicilia. MiMi (Hermione), married to Leo, is a famous American/French singer who is heavily pregnant with their second child. Xeno (Polixenes), Leo’s childhood friend, lives in New Bohemia and is a computer games genius. Leo becomes convinced that MiMi and Xeno have been having an affair and the child that MiMi is carrying is not his. Xeno’s ambiguous sexuality only serves to ramp up Leo’s fury and he decides to kill him. Leo is as obsessed by the thought of his best friend and wife being together as he is by flashbacks to his teenage affair with Xeno.

Once the characters are secured in their settings, Winterson lets the story take flight while remaining true to the plot of the play. She seems to be having fun; referencing herself at one point and breaking the fourth wall at another. It is a witty interpretation of Shakespeare with King Leontes’ court becoming the money markets of London, and one of the king’s henchmen remade as a used car salesman. The man who rescues the abandoned Perdita is called Shep, in reference to the shepherd who adopts Perdita in the play. This light touch works well, especially with the more unfathomable Shakespearian plot points such as Hermione’s sudden reappearance. The blossoming romance between Perdita and Zel is handled with tenderness that contrasts well with their warring elders.

There is no doubt that familiarity with the play will enhance enjoyment of the novel but the book stands as a droll piece in its own right, too. As a method of enticing readers to pick up Shakespeare’s works or attend a play performance, it has every chance of succeeding.

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Tennison by Lynda La Plante – Independent on Sunday Review

Tennison, by Lynda La Plante – book review: She’s got previous

Simon & Schuster – £20

Lynda La Plante was not involved in the television series of Prime Suspect after the third instalment, but she was not shy about expressing her disappointment in how the series concluded in 2006, with Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison struggling with alcoholism and imminent retirement. In this novel, she attempts to snatch back ownership of her most famous character by going back in time to document Tennison’s first, faltering steps in the Metropolitan Police force.

It is 1973 and 22-year-old WPC Tennison is a probationer at an East End police station. She is keen but curiously naive for a woman who has just graduated from the police college at Hendon. The common jargon of police officers is a mystery to her; for example, she doesn’t know what a “bung” is. Tennison becomes involved in a murder case, typing up reports and filing information about the brutal killing of a young woman. La Plante excels in describing the minutiae of police work, the grinding day-to-day work of an investigation in pre-computerised days. She is a bit heavy handed in demonstrating the sexism inherent in the police. The female officers frequently being sent to make tea for senior male officers doesn’t need any commentary to make the point. Tennison develops a crush on DCI Bradfield, who is leading the murder investigation, seeing him as the kind of officer she aspires to be. La Plante uses this admiration to foreshadow Tennison’s later professional methods which echo Bradfield’s sometimes ruthless way of working.

La Plante also pulls back the curtain on Tennison’s family life, revealing her loving mother and father bewildered by her choice of career, and her younger sister wrapped up in her forthcoming wedding. This slice of domestic detail is interesting as Tennison seems as much an outsider in her own family as she does at work. Suffocating at home, Tennison moves into police digs, her first foray into independence.

She grabs you by the lapels, shoves you up against a wall, and doesn’t stop talking until you have heard the story she wants to tell. Tell is the operative word as La Plante’s writing style is not subtle and she will tell you exactly what all her characters are wearing, drinking, eating, and thinking. She is as present in this novel as her protagonists and she rarely leaves room for the reader to draw her own conclusions. The pace is breathless, and the plot is satisfyingly full of twists and turns. It reads more like the basis for a television series than a novel so it is not surprising to learn that La Plante has already adapted her novel into a six-part series for ITV, due to be screened in 2016.

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The Kindness of Enemies – Independent on Sunday Review

The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela – book review: A voyage of self-discovery

W&N – £14.99

Natasha, a lecturer at a Scottish university, lives her life in a kind of limbo. The daughter of a Sudanese father and Russian mother, she feels she doesn’t belong anywhere. She is drawn to Oz, one of her more gifted students, who introduces her to Malak, his mother. Natasha is researching Imam Shamil, a 19th-century warrior leader who fought against the Russian annexation of the Caucasus, and Malak has a sword that is said to have belonged to him. Snowed in during her visit to Malak and forced to spend the night, Natasha witnesses the early morning arrest of Oz by anti-terrorist police and finds herself under suspicion.

Aboulela splits the narrative between Natasha’s troubles in 2010 Scotland and Shamil’s guerrilla war against the Russians in the mid-19th century. Shamil, known as the Lion of Dagestan, emerges as an inspirational leader who risks everything to keep his people free. His young son, Jamaleldin, is taken hostage by the Russians and Shamil spends years trying to free him. Meanwhile, Jamaleldin becomes a favourite of the Tsar and grows up to become a Russian soldier. Aboulela skilfully draws out the parallels between Jamaleldin and Natasha, each desperate to assimilate into a new life but never able to lose the feeling of being an outsider.

Aboulela’s graceful writing style makes for a pleasurable read. Her descriptive powers come to the fore when writing about Shamil’s life. She brings the landscape of the Caucasus to life with vivid passages about the harsh beauty of Shamil’s mountainous home. The hunger and privations of his people are artfully compared to the luxury and waste of their Russian foes, especially when Shamil kidnaps Anna, a Georgian Princess, whom he wishes to exchange for his son, Jamaleldin. Anna, a former lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina, is shocked by the poverty but comes to respect Shamil as a man of integrity.

Aboulela’s greatest strength lies in the complex portrayals of her protagonists. There are no flimsy characters as each emerges with all the compassion and contradictions inherent in humans. Shamil is a ruthless military leader who is deeply religious and gentle with women and children; Anna is a spoiled princess who finds a well of courage she never knew she possessed; and Natasha learns to come to terms with her mixed heritage and find peace.

The book is a tender evocation of the spiritual journeys of her characters.

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The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone – Herald

Natalie Livingstone: The Mistresses Of Cliveden (Hutchison)
Shirley Whiteside

Saturday 18 July 2015

Cliveden has become synonymous with the 1963 Profumo Affair, when 19-year-old Christine Keeler’s brief relationship with MP John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, and parallel liaison with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov, caused a scandal that brought down the Conservative government. Profumo had first spotted Keeler emerging naked from the swimming pool at Cliveden, formerly an exclusive country house and currently a five-star hotel.
In 2011, Natalie Livingstone’s husband, a billionaire property developer, decided to lease Cliveden for use as a hotel, thus sparking in her a passion to find out more about the women in the portraits that lined the walls of the house. These women had been mistresses of the elegant residence during its 300-year history and included two countesses, a Princess of Wales, a Duchess and the first female MP to take a seat in the House of Commons.

In the 1660s, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II’s childhood friend, set about creating Cliveden as a luxurious country home on the Thames where he could carry on his notorious affair with Anna-Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, a renowned beauty who slathered boiled puppy fat on her skin. Buckingham duelled with Anna-Maria’s husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who died soon afterwards. Conveniently, Buckingham was absolved of killing the Earl, clearing the way for a happy life with Anna-Maria at Cliveden. However, thanks to the reverberations of the scandal their unmarried bliss didn’t last, and Buckingham and Anna-Maria were separated by an extraordinary order of parliament.
Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney, was mistress of the house from 1696 until her death in 1733. She was not a beauty – her nickname was Squinting Betty – but she was extremely bright and she continued Cliveden’s royal connections when she became the mistress of William of Orange, later William III. Although these women were at the centre of political machinations in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Livingstone’s portrayal of both women is sketchy and leans heavily on the histories of the men in their lives. This is by no means Livingstone’s fault; the lives of women at this time were considered less important than those of men and vital female correspondences and diaries were often not saved for future generations. In the absence of documentary evidence Livingstone refrains from speculating too much about the inner thoughts of these two women and so their true feelings about their turbulent lives remain tantalisingly out of reach.
Augusta, Princess of Wales, became the chatelaine of Cliveden from 1738-1751. She was married to Frederick, eldest son of George II, and Cliveden became one of the locations of their alternative court as Frederick goaded the parents he hated so much. Augusta loyally supported her husband’s feud but when Frederick died suddenly, she showed her mettle as she attempted to guide and protect the future George III, even at the cost of her own reputation.

By the time the Duchess of Sutherland took up residence in Cliveden in 1849, the original house and a replacement had both been destroyed by fire. Rebuilt again, only the colonnaded terrace survived from the Duke of Buckingham’s original design. The Duchess was a close friend to Queen Victoria who was often at Windsor, a mere five miles away. Through the Queen’s copious diary entries and letters between the two women a clear picture of the Duchess emerges. She was a lively woman who spoke out against slavery, which some of her contemporaries thought was rather ill-judged. The considerable Sutherland fortune was built on the back of harsh Highland Clearances instituted by her mother-in-law but the Duchess continued her campaign regardless.

Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in parliament, continued Cliveden’s reputation as a hothouse for political and cultural discussion when she took up residence in 1906. She entertained luminaries ranging from Gandhi to Charlie Chaplin, Amy Johnson to T E Lawrence. Astor disliked sex so much that she bit on an apple in order to distract herself from the unpleasantness, a stark contrast to the first two ladies associated with the house.

Livingstone’s writing lacks stylish flourishes but, given the complex historical data she has to impart, this is not a fatal flaw. Anyone hoping for a book full of sexual romps, however, will be sorely disappointed. This is a serious examination of the lives and times of some very privileged women over the last four centuries.

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Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach – Independent on Sunday Review

Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach – book review: A genuine page-turner

The things we’ll do for secrets

Petra is a single sixtysomething living in Pimlico, London. Her children and grandchildren live in far flung corners of the world and she has taken up online dating to assuage her loneliness. Things look up when her old friend Jeremy reappears in her life and they begin a passionate affair, meeting every time he is in London on business. It is everything Petra has dreamed of with only one small wrinkle to spoil her happiness. Jeremy is her best friend Bev’s husband. Things get even more difficult when Bev calls from her African home and begs Petra to come and help her. So begins a complex dance as Petra attempts to be the best friend Bev so obviously needs while constantly fearing that her affair with Jeremy will be exposed. Thrown together, old jealousies and spats arise and Petra discovers that Bev has her own secrets to hide. Petra’s African experiences are vivid and eye-opening. Away from the slick cities full of Arab and Chinese businessmen, Petra finds that Africa is still poor and corruption is rife at every level of society. Moggach sends Petra on the voyage of a lifetime, where she makes astonishing discoveries about Bev, Jeremy, and herself.

Over in Texas, Lorrie dreams of moving her family to a better neighbourhood but with her husband in the military and two growing children, money is tight. When she accidentally destroys their chance to escape their run down home she embarks on an extraordinary project to put things right. At the same time, in China, Li Jing wonders why her stern businessman husband spends so much time in Africa and how she will get over the shame of her infertility. Things go from bad to worse when tests reveal that her husband is equally to blame for their lack of a child and Li Jing wonders if he will recover from the loss of face. He is impassive and tells her he has plans to sort everything out.

Skilfully, Moggach draws these disparate strands together, showing that even the most unlikely people can be connected in unexpected ways. In spite of their differences in age, lifestyle and geography, these women share a common characteristic; they are willing to betray their nearest and dearest in order to keep their secrets from being discovered. The women are all fully rounded characters who are easy to care for, particularly Petra whose warmth and humour, with some dark flourishes, is appealing. This is an absorbing read, with surprises and moments of tension that make it a genuine page-turner.

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The Insect Rosary – Book Oxygen Review

The Insect Rosary

Sarah Armstrong

Published by Sandstone Press 18 June 2015

280pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

The tangled relationships of sisters has long proved a fruitful area for writers to explore. Sarah Armstrong’s tale of two sisters is set in Northern Ireland both in the present day and during The Troubles. The sisters narrate the story, Nancy in the present day, and Bernadette in the flashbacks to 1982. This works well as each point of view, and the differing conclusions each draws, is clearly delineated.

Nancy and Bernadette spend their summers at their mother’s childhood home, a remote farm where their Uncle Donn and Aunt Agatha live. Their English father only arrives for the final week of the holidays and until he does the girls are mostly left to their own devices. They explore the farm buildings even though they have been told not to, with twelve-year-old Nancy daring her ten-year-old sister to open forbidden doors or climb into rickety old barns. Their Aunt Agatha, known to the girls as Sister Agatha as she almost became a nun, tries to instil discipline and respect but her efforts usually elicit a fit of the giggles. As a last resort she gives Nancy and Bernadette a black rosary each which they promptly mislay. There are various comings and goings at the farm, family and other neighbours arrive at odd times and the girls are shooed away to their bedroom. They sneak back to the stairs and try to listen to the adults’ conversations, hearing things that leave them curious and a little frightened. Everyone, it seems, is touched in some way by The Troubles.

In the present day the sisters, long estranged, return to the farm for a holiday with their families. Nancy and her annoying American husband, Elian, and troubled son Hurley; Bernadette with her husband Adrian and bratty daughters Erin and Maeve. Uncle Donn is going to sell the farm and Aunt Agatha is going to a nunnery so it is a last chance for them all to spend time there. For Bernadette it is a chance to go back to her childhood and finally understand why she had a breakdown. Nancy doesn’t want to remember, she only wants to make her mother happy by attempting a reconciliation with Bernadette.

Armstrong skilfully plants clues as to the reason for Bernadette’s breakdown, slowly revealing what happened that last summer at the farm. The flashback scenes are well written as the loyalty of the sisters is tested. Bernadette’s ten-year-old voice is particularly strong as she struggles to understand what the grown-ups are trying to hide. She is brave and her squabbles with Nancy feel authentically child-like. Nancy’s adult voice exposes her guilt and confusion over the events of that summer as she tries to deny Bernadette’s accusations of betrayal. Nancy’s husband is a useful foil to show just how insular and isolated the farm is and his blundering attempts to strike up conversations with the family and locals are wonderfully cringe-making. Although partly set during The Troubles, this is a story of how sisterly disloyalty can ripple through lives causing years of heartache and misery. Betrayal, whether real or imagined, is very hard to put right.

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Through Every Human Heart – Book Oxygen Review

Through Every Human Heart

Janice Brown

Published by Sandstone Press

226pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Feliks Berisovic reluctantly leaves his sequestered life in unnamed East European state to travel to Scotland on unofficial government business. Boris, Feliks’ influential and possibly criminal father, has ordered his estranged son to bring home Irina Arbinisi, the grand-daughter of the last Archduke, who is living and working in Glasgow. Newly released from its Russian yoke, his country is looking to the past to re-establish its identity. So begins Janice Brown’s second adult novel which is fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunications, leaving Feliks with increasingly farcical complications to what should be a simple mission.

Irina Arbinisi, a well-heeled exile from her East European homeland, runs a successful design company in the West End of Glasgow. One day she sends Dina, her assistant, to her well-appointed home to pick up a disc she needs for a client. Dina walks in on two men who claim to be plumbers fixing a problem which she finds strange but takes at face value. When she finds Irina’s beloved cat dead her scream rouses Feliks and another man, who are waiting outside for Irina, to burst in to save her. The four men fight and one plumber is stabbed while the other is knocked out. Dina is then bustled into a car by Feliks all the while insisting she is not Irina Arbinisi. Eventually Feliks believes her but cannot let her go until he has made contact with Irina. What follows is a madcap chase around Scotland involving Feliks and Dina, Irina and a professional criminal, the police, and a secret service agent.

Brown has created some interesting characters. Feliks, with his badly scarred face, is as damaged on the inside as he is outside giving him a sinister aura. He is against everything his father stands for but in the brave new world of independence are their aims as similar as their methods are different? Dina, originally from the Scottish islands, initially comes across as a bit of an airhead but as the pursuit becomes more dangerous she shows her mettle. Irina, on the other hand, is revealed as a vain woman with little regard for anyone but herself. The professional criminal, a man with many names, is pleasingly slippery, able to come up with a host of inventive lies in order to keep Irina on his side. The secret service agent seems to be helpful but just whose country is he serving?

Brown treads a fine line in mixing crime and comedy but her careful plotting means that one never overshadows the other. She also trusts her readers by introducing new characters with the merest of background information, only slowly filling in their backstory as the plot progresses. At times the novel feels a bit undercooked, as if could benefit from being opened out on a larger canvas with more room to develop the characters even further. Overall it is a pacey read with some amusing elements of comedy in amongst the drama and a hint of a happy ending for the troubled Feliks.