Book reviews: Tessa Hadley, Marty Ross and James Dashner
The underrated Hadley’s new novel, a queer take on Romeo and Juliet, and some familiar dystopian landscapes are this week’s selections
by Tessa Hadley (read by Antonia Beamish)
Whole Story (audiobook)
I once met Dan Franklin, near-legendary editor of Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis. I asked who was the most underrated writer he had worked with, and he immediately said Tessa Hadley, an English novelist who specialises in well-crafted, psychologically acute portraits of women balancing love, self and children. The Past is a family affair, in all senses of the phrase. At the outset, three sisters (later there’s a brother) have to decide how to deal with their childhood home. Bad news, as the three spend most of their time pressing each other’s buttons. Many of these revolve around Alice’s vexed love life, and the way her flirtatious, desperate character sparks off her more grounded sisters. There is something Brontë-esque about the four siblings who open and close the action; the middle section reverses to 1968 and the story of their mother, Jill, leaving her ne’er-do-well husband. Past and present bounce off one another in a way that is satisfying but never contrived. Kate Beamish reads as if she is simply enjoying Hadley’s nuanced, elegant prose. By keeping things understated, she both understands the author and lets her writing breathe. Fantastic.
Romeo and Jude
by Marty Ross (read by various)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Romeo and Jude is written by Marty Ross, but that title nods to the inspiration: William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this year. Ross’ take on the classic tale of star-crossed lovers and warring families offers (as that title also hints) a queer version of the original, with a generation gap thrown in. The backdrop for this dramatised reading is a dramatised staging of Romeo and Juliet. Owen Teale (whose name may ring bells for Game of Thrones fans) is the melancholic, bitterly funny middle-aged actor, Ray, whose life and marriage are falling apart. Hope arrives, first through eccentric director (Frances Jeater), and then Jude (Matthew Tennyson), a sensitive young man whose bigoted father (a businessman with links to China) is played con brio by Nick Moran. Although Ray’s poignant struggles set the tone, the book has nice line in comedy, thanks to the witty sparks flying between Ray and Miranda. She explains a desire to stage Titus Andronicus: “All that cannibalism is so pertinent to the current state of the world.” Later she notes: “Romeo and Juliet. Done to death.”
The Game of Lives
by James Dashner (read by Erik Davies)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Dashner is best known for The Maze Runner, the sort of dystopian, post-apocalyptic Young Adult thriller in vogue thanks to The Hunger Games. The Game of Lives is the third and final part of another dark series entitled The Mortality Doctrine: part one, The Eye of Minds, had fun with global, virtual gaming that felt eerily like The Matrix. Its premise was familiar: if you die in the game, you die in real life. The Game of Lives follows Dashner’s three heroes – Michael, Sarah and Bryson – as they try once again to hit baddie Tangent Kaine where it hurts: in the virtual trousers. Kaine, however, has left his stronghold, VirtNet, and is attacking the actual humans. All roads lead to “The Hive” and a fight to the death. Although it is not the most original tale, Erik Davies reads with sincerity, even though I wanted him to vary his tone and pace now and again. A capable techno-epic.