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I picked up this book because I had heard lots of good things about it, and because despite the fact that fantasy is not, and never has been a favourite genre of mine, the premise intrigued me.

The story is set in London and is narrated by Peter Jones, a young PC in the Metropolitan Police Service. This strange tale starts when he is trying to glean information about a vicious and unprovoked murder, only to find himself interviewing a witness who died more than a hundred years ago…

More murders follow and Jones and his partner Lesley and mentor Thomas Nightingale quickly work out that they are all linked, and something strange and unusual is causing them.

As if that weren’t enough, Peter and Nightingale also find themselves caught up in a feud between Mother Thames and Father Thames, who are arguing over who has jurisdiction of their River Thames; as a result, Peter meets the exotic and alluring Beverley Brook.

I enjoyed this book a lot – but not quite as much as I had hoped to, or indeed quite as much as the first fifty pages or so led me to think I might. I really liked the characters of Peter and Nightingale, and as narrators go, Peter is witty, likeable and extremely engaging. However, I think the plot got a bit too convoluted, mainly because the feud over the River Thames seemed pointless and really added nothing whatsoever to the main mystery, which was that of the murders. The  murders themselves were quite interesting and I liked that Peter had a foot in both the mortal world and the underworld of London where he could learn magic and make deals with ghosts.

So despite feeling that it was something of an anti-climax, the main two characters are enough for me to want to try the next book in the series. I also find that generally with series such as this one, the first book is never the strongest. This book has had very strong reviews elsewhere, so if you are thinking of reading it – and especially if fantasy is a genre you enjoy (bearing in mind that it is not one I usually choose to read) I would recommend giving this a try.

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At the start of this book, it is 1923, and the acclaimed magician, Carter the Great, puts on a grand show, in which President Harding comes on stage to take part in the final illusion.  Hours after the show, the President is dead, and Carter is under suspicion of causing his death, and has to flee the Secret Service.

After this tantalising peek into the life of Charles Carter the adult, the story of his life begins, from his childhood, where he turns to magic to defeat loneliness and a servant who bullies Charles and his brother.  His rise to fame is not without problems, and he suffers professional and personal triumphs and defeats.

As the story progresses up to and beyond the night of the President’s death, layer upon layer is added, including such story lines as the invention of television, and the book becomes a sprawling novel, with Carter right at it’s heart…

This is a hard book for my to review, because I have such mixed feelings it.  It started promisingly and I felt certain that I was going to love it, but as it progressed I started to feel underwhelmed, and – while I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy lots of it – I was slightly relieved to finish it.  Carter the Great was a real person, although this is a highly fictionalised account of his life.  Further, President Harding did indeed die under unusual circumstances (or rather, the way his death was immediately handled raises questions), although again, this book deals with it in a fictional manner.

I did think that Carter was an extremely likeable and enjoyable protagonist.  He was witty and clever, but also surprisingly vulnerable, and carried a sadness about him, the reason for which is explained in the story.  I also liked his brother James, who is a recurring character throughout the story, and Carter’s assistant Ledocq.

The reason that I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped to, was that at times there just seemed to be too much going on.  From Secret Service agents (some corrupt, some incompetent, and some under-appreciated) who were trailing Carter, to an old friend who pops up throughout the story, to Carter’s rivalry with fellow magician Mysterioso – there were just so many elements to the story, some of which detracted from the part I was most interested in, which was Carter’s life story.

However, on the plus side, the author had clearly done lots of research about the era, and the popularity of vaudeville shows, where magicians such as Carter made much of their living, and I did enjoy that aspect of the story.

Overall, I would say that there was probably a terrific 400 page book contained within this 500+ page book, and it has certainly received many glowing reviews, but it perhaps wasn’t quite the right fit for me.  There was enough here though, that I would certainly read more by this author.

(Author’s blog can be found here.  For more information about Carter the Great, please click here.)

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This review relates specifically to the Penguin Shakespeare edition (the cover of which is shown above).  I mention this, because of the excellent introductions in this book, which really enhanced my enjoyment when reading the play.

The book starts with a brief introduction by Stanley Wells, of Shakespeare’s life and times, followed by a list of Shakespeare’s plays, dated as far as can be accurately determined.  There then follows a lengthier introduction by Helen Hackett, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This introduction is wonderful, providing analysis and different interpretations of the play.  She takes many of the main characters and looks at how they have been portrayed differently in various performances, as well as discussing the symbolism within the play and the context in which the play was written, and breaking down the language of some of the scenes.  I found this introduction to be both entertaining and enlightening (speaking as someone who very rarely reads the introductions in books).  One of the most interesting parts was where she discusses the play-within-the-play, which is performed by the mechanicals at the wedding party towards the end of the play.  While the mechanicals might initially seem like a bunch of incredibly amateur actors, who don’t understand the idea of trying to convince an audience, it could also be seen as they are far more aware of the ‘falseness’ of their profession, and don’t seek to hide the fact that they are merely actors speaking lines.

The play itself is, of course, fantastic.  It is packed with humour, wit and sensuality, but  most of all it has the most beautiful, lyrical language.  I particularly liked how the young lovers and the fairies spoke in different types of rhyme, while the ‘mechanicals’ spoke mainly in prose.  The story revolves around four youngsters – two women who love two men – but due to the love potions of the fairies of the forest, their affections become transferred and all sorts of confusion reigns.  Simultaneously, Fairy King Oberon and his Fairy Queen Titania have fallen out, and he casts a spell which causes her to fall in love with Bottom the Weaver – who is temporarily sporting a donkey’s head!  (A lengthier synopsis of the story can be found in my review of the 1999 film adaptation, to which there is a link at the end of this review.) 

It took me a long time to read Shakespeare – while I have often enjoyed adaptations of his work, I have never liked the idea of sitting down and reading his plays (and after all, plays are written to be seen, not read).  However, I very much liked reading this play.  Shakespeare’s wit and intelligence is clear to see, and almost 500 years after he was born, his work is still relevant and enjoyable.  I will certainly be reading more of his work.  The introductions in this particular edition contributed in no small way to my pleasure in reading and understanding the story. 

If like me, you always thought that you would never enjoy Shakespeare, I would recommend trying one of the books from the Penguin Shakespeare series – you might just be pleasantly surprised!

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Click here for my review of the 1999 film adaptation.

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