All's Well in Barset

A Shakespearean drama of pain and suffering which nevertheless ends well, and the satisfying completion of a long series of Victorian-era novels.

Issue #21, Sunday, 1 May 2022

Bookish News

Stella Prize Winner Announced

The Stella Prize is Australia’s premiere literary award for works written by women.

The 2022 Stella Prize: Stella is delighted to announce Evelyn Araluen’s debut collection of prose and poetry, Dropbear, as the winner of the tenth annual Stella Prize.

More details

I told you this was a thirst so great it could carve rivers.

“This fierce debut from award-winning writer Evelyn Araluen confronts the tropes and iconography of an unreconciled nation with biting satire and lyrical fury.” (Readings review)

Buy it at Readings

2022 Hugo Awards Ballot

I won’t list all of the categories here, just the Best Novel category. The full list is here.

I’ve actually read two of these (the last two in the list) and I have A Master of Djinn on hold at the library. I doubt that I’ll get to the others. I didn’t much like Project Hail Mary, but I thought She Who Became the Sun was excellent (and it’s by an Australian author).

BSFA Awards Longlist Announced

BSFA is the British Science Fiction Association. This is a very long list, so I’ll just direct you to it here.

My Reading

Something different this time around:

What I’ve Been Buying

Yes, although I have a limited budget and borrow lots of books from the library, I do actually buy books occasionally. I went a bit overboard this time at Readings, and bought:

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

[Paperback] I’m looking forward to reading this, though when I can fit it into my reading schedule, I have no idea. It seems to be quite a short book, though, compared with her earlier Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel.

Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

[Hardcover] I’ve been a pretty big fan of Neal Stephenson’s work over the years, and I’ve read a lot of his books, though I’ve never been able to figure out what he’s doing in his novel Anathem and have never managed to get more than a few dozen pages into it. I own quite a few of his books in hardcover editions, which tells you something; including his massive historical fiction Baroque Trilogy. Why hardcovers? Because Stephenson tends to be very long-winded, and his books are massive doorstops. Paperback editions would have cracked spines in no time. Anyway, I don’t know very much at all about Fall, but Readings had it on their Bargain list for a great price and so I bought it. I see that it’s 883 pages! Could take me a while to get through.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

[Paperback] Subtitled “The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster” this looks very interesting. I saw a glowing recommendation for it in one of the Substack newsletters I now receive (but I now can’t remember which one, sorry!). But now that the Chernobyl site has been caught up in the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia I guess it will need a revised edition soon.

I bought four other books from Readings, but as they are all intended as presents for my granddaughter, I won’t list them here.

Completed Since Last Issue

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

A production for Standard Ebooks. It completes the six-book series Chronicles of Barsetshire by Trollope, and is a very satisfying conclusion to it, bringing together the stories of many characters from the earlier books. The first two books in the series are The Warden and Barchester Towers, which were made into a really excellent television series called Barchester Chronicles by the BBC in 1982, featuring Donald Pleasance as the Reverend Septimus Harding, Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly, Susan Hampshire as the magnificent Signora Madeline Neroni, and an unmissable early role by Alan Rickman as the oily Rev. Obadiah Slope. If you get a chance to see it on a streaming service somewhere, jump at the chance.

The primary storyline of The Last Chronicle of Barset is concerned with the Reverend Josiah Crawley. Although he is a dedicated and sincere clergyman, his ecclesiastical salary is too low to support him and his family in much more than abject poverty, and thus he is coninually in debt. As the book opens, Crawley has been accused of passing a cheque for twenty pounds, a cheque not made out to himself and whose possession he cannot account for. The writer of the cheque claims that he lost it while visiting Crawley. The entire neighbourhood of Barchester is shocked and many cannot believe that Crawley would become a thief. The accusation has significant implications for many of the other characters, including Major Grantly, the son of Archdeacon Grantly, who has fallen in love with Crawley’s daughter Grace.

Great stuff, trust me! It will be available shortly for free from Standard Ebooks (all of our productions get reviewed before release by another producer to ensure our standards are maintained).

All’s Well by Mona Awad

Although this book has been highly praised by some very prominent names, it didn’t quite work for me, though it was an entertaining enough read, and it has a dark sort of humour throughout which I quite liked.

It’s told from the first person point of view by Miranda Fitch. She’s a one-time Shakespearean actor who, after a disastrous accident when she fell off the stage, has been reduced to working as a drama teacher at a small liberal-arts college. Following her accident, which broke several bones, Miranda is in constant pain and has seen a series of doctors and physiotherapists, none of whom seem able to help and several of whom seem to have made things worse. There’s a lot of very pointed commentary here about how chronic pain sufferers are disbelieved and misdiagnosed, particularly if the sufferer is a woman.

The college puts on a Shakespeare play each year, and during Miranda’s tenure have performed some of the most popular works such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. She’s tired, though, of seeing the important female roles performed badly by the troupe’s lead actress Briana, whose parents have contributed many dollars to the maintenance of the theatre course. This year Miranda is determined to put on the lesser-known Shakespeare play All’s Well That Ends Well, a play which itself is about longing, suffering and semi-miraculous healing. But the students, led by Briana, resist this plan strongly and want to put on Macbeth instead.

It’s at this point that, desperate with pain and with fury at the students’ intransigence, Miranda meets three mysterious men in a bar who seem to know her name and who give her advice which speaks directly to her unhappy experiences with the medical profession. This encounter descends into fantasy. There’s something very odd about these three. I’m not sure if the author wants us to think of them as the three witches from Macbeth, but that’s one reading, at least. They foretell success for Miranda. Or will it be her doom?

Then we have another, literally magical element introduced, in the form of herbal potions (read “spells”) by Ellie, one of the students who has always been on Miranda’s side. At one point Miranda has a physical tussle on stage with Briana, who has convinced the students to rebel and brought in her own script of Macbeth. This tussle ends in Miranda gripping Briana’s wrist tightly, and this seems to magically pass on Miranda’s sufferings to Briana. A later, similar, struggle with Miranda’s current physiotherapist Mark seems to have the same result. Miranda is suddenly no longer incapacitated and seems full of life. Briana and Mark, however, go into physical declines. Is this transference of pain due to the influence of the three mysterious men, or the result of Ellie’s potions?

Things become more and more confusing towards the end of the book, and that’s where it started to lose me. It becomes hard to figure out where reality lies and fantasy begins. Does Miranda really “go to sleep in the sea” the evening before the first performance? What do her dreamlike experiences mean?

I would have liked this more, I think, if the author could have lost the three mysterious men and fixed on a single fantasy element (Ellie’s potions) driving the plot.

Still, not a bad read.

Currently Reading

The City & The City by China Miéville

As I said quite a few issues ago, I’m keen to start reading Miéville’s works for adult readers (having read and much enjoyed his juvenile Railsea several years ago).

The City & The City opens as though it were a simple procedural crime novel. It’s written from the first-person point of view of a police inspector, Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Besźel. He’s at the crime scene in a piece of waste ground where a young woman’s body has been discovered, covered up by an old mattress. She’s been struck on the head by some heavy object and then stabbed. So far, so crime noir. But we’re slowly, very slowly, introduced to the fact that there’s something strange about the city. In fact, there are two cities, intermingled with each other, and the inhabitants of each city have been trained from childhood not to pay attention to those who live in the other city, or to the buildings and streets which lie in that other place, even if those buildings are right next door to each other.

I’m only about a quarter of the way through this, but I’m already fascinated. I don’t know where the author is going with it, and in this case that’s a pleasurable feeling. I feel that I’m in good hands.

I’ll try to do a full review next issue.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I’m about a third of the way through this, and enjoying it greatly, but finishing it keeps getting pushed back as I scramble to finish other books I need to have read for the podcast. See below!

Waiting on the Shelf

Next episode of our podcast, in a week’s time, will be a crime episode, so I’ll talk about The City & The City, which is kind of a crime novel, and I’m going to also try to read the first two shown here:

And after my marathon re-read of The Expanse series to date, I’m desperate to start reading the final book, Leviathan Falls, but it keeps getting pushed further and further down the schedule.

Yes, I now actually have a reading schedule. I need it to plan my reading because of the demands of the podcast and of this newsletter. At the moment, it looks like this (click to see it enlarged in your browser):

This is courtesy of a great program called Aeon Timeline, which I’ve used for a few years as an aid to plotting my fiction writing. It turns out it’s pretty good for this, too.

And that’s it for this issue. See you next time.

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