The Twenty-Year Death Review: A Book to Die For

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 18… The Twenty-Year Death (2012) by Ariel S. Winter

I thought it was about time I reviewed something more recent (the last few books have each been over one-hundred years old…). So here’s The Twenty-Year Death, a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. This is perhaps one of the most ambitious debut novels I’ve ever read… because it’s not really one novel, but three! The book is made up of three loosely connected stories – loose enough that you could read one of them without touching the other two – taking place ten years apart from each other (1931, 1941 and 1951). Each of them is a crime novel in the style of a popular author from the first half of the nineteenth century. And they all add up to a pretty fantastic book.

Of the three authors whose writing these novels are based on (Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson), I’m only familiar with Chandler. Though that feels like a good way to approach this book; it acts as a delightful selection of different crime-styles, offering tasters for you to find a new favourite author. The Twenty-Year Death did a fantastic job of satisfying my hardboiled crime novel craving, offering stories from the perspective of a police detective, a private investigator as well as an accidental criminal. They also seem to take inspiration from more modern fiction as well, with Malniveau Prison having a very clear Hannibal Lecter vibe. Each of the stories are strong enough to stand by themselves and I’m sure Winter would’ve had little trouble getting published if he’d only written one of these novels. To avoid just making general points, I will touch on each of these novels individually with the most minor of minor spoilers.


Malniveau Prison

Detective Pelleter arrives at the titular prison in order to conduct an interview with an infamous serial killer who may possess vital information. While there his attention is drawn to a series of mysterious stabbings that have left several prisoners dead… With the help of some officers from a local town, Pelleter tries to unravel the mystery of Malvineau Prison.

And The Twenty-Year Death gets off to a very solid start. The novel is dense with plot and the central mystery is interesting, ending in a satisfying manner. I found myself becoming really attached to the world and characters that Winter creates in these pages. I would love to see another story with this cast (despite how very unlikely that is). Pelleter makes a great, if slightly typical, lead – a hardboiled detective interested in getting to the truth. Martin, the plucky and enthusiastic officer that the detective takes under his wing, was another favourite. Mahoisser – the sadistic killer that draws Pellter to Malvineau – gets very little page-time but makes a big impression. To be honest, most of the novel’s strengths come from what Winter chooses to keep off the page. He leaves plenty to the imagination with regards to the relationships between characters, such as Pelleter and Mahoisser, allowing them to maintain some mystery. The author knows how to keep people wanting more – and I definitely wanted more of these characters.


The Falling Star

The second story focuses on Dennis Foster, a private investigator hired to look after a high-profile actress who fears she’s being followed. What seems to be an easy job soon becomes complicated when the actress’s co-star turns up with her throat cut. Foster soon finds himself tangled up in an investigation that’ll take him to the dark underbelly of Hollywood…

This was by a fair amount my least favourite of the three stories. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t click for me in the same way the other two did. While I managed to barrel through the others in a day each, this one took quite a bit longer. My main issue was that the central mystery felt nowhere near as compelling as Malniveau Prison’s. I won’t go into spoilers, but where the first story’s resolution felt both surprising and inevitable (like the best conclusions do) this one felt slightly less well-planned. The characters didn’t really feel as strong either. Foster the wise-cracking private investigator made a great protagonist, but no one else really made much of an impression. None of the other characters really get fleshed out that much. Overall, The Falling Star is still a great, enjoyable story… it just didn’t impress me as Winter’s other two pieces.

 

Police at a Funeral

Shem Rosenkrantz, a washed up author, returns to his ex-wife’s hometown to attend her funeral and the reading of her will. After many years of being distant from his son, he is keen to try and fix things up with him. However, shortly after arriving in town, a fatal accident passes that lands Shem in huge trouble with the law. In order to escape the consequences of his actions, he must do unthinkable things…

This one was easily my favourite. While I enjoyed the investigative style of the previous two stories, a tale from the perspective of a criminal was a nice change of pace. And boy, does Shem make a great protagonist! While Pelleter and Foster have clear, positive intentions, Shem is a bit more morally ambiguous. He’s built up of so many unlikeable aspects – such as his ego and alcoholism – yet I still found myself rooting for him till the end. Police at a Funeral definitely benefits from having a smaller cast than the previous two stories. With its large cast, The Falling Star never really got that much of a chance to develop any of its characters. This story does. Vee, Shem’s partner in crime, acts a great foil for him. Rosenkrantz’s relationship quasi father-son relationship with Montgomery also made up one of my favourite parts of the novel. This is as great a way for the trilogy to end as I could have hoped for.

I could say a lot more about The Twenty-Year Death, but I think what I’ve already said is a strong enough recommendation. It’s not a short book by any means, but its well-plotted storylines and engaging characters make it easy to burn through. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

8/10

While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2015) Review

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I absolutely love going to the cinema but have never really posted any film reviews on this blog. This should change that. I’ve seen two films in the cinema recently, Avengers: Age of Ultron and While We’re Young. While I enjoyed the former, the Internet is probably oversaturated with reviews of it at the moment… So While We’re Young it is.

The film focuses on a pair of forty-somethings, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who seem to have hit a collective midlife crisis. All their friends are having children, something they’re not too sure they want. Josh has been working on the same documentary for the past ten years and both of them seem to be stuck in a rut. Then they meet a young, hipster couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who seem to be everything they’re not. They’re spontaneous, exciting and always doing new things. In an attempt to reinvigorate their lives, Josh and Cornelia start hanging around with them.

One of the things that drew me to this film in the first place was its director, Noah Baumbach. Though I’ve only seen one of his previous works – The Squid and the Whale – it’s undoubtedly one of my favourite films. The focus on a pair of young brothers through their parents’ divorce was something that I found really easy to connect to. That I was the same age as the main character, Walt, when I watched the film most likely helped too. Perhaps this is why I didn’t find myself relating to While We’re Young’s central character, Josh, so much. Parents going through a divorce is a familiar situation to me. Midlife crisis though? Not so much… In fact, it probably explains why I was the youngest person at the screening by a good thirty years.

Although I found it hard to connect to the middle-aged lead characters, the film did have two characters in my age group: Jamie and Darby. But I couldn’t relate to them either. They seemed to veer too much into stereotype territory – being unrealistically hipster-ish young people. Jamie only writes on a typewriter, they own a chicken that lives indoors and their apartment is filled to the brim with VHS tapes. Oh, and Darby makes ice cream for a living. That Noah Baumbach, who represented young people so well in The Squid and the Whale, does such a poor job here is pretty baffling. Jamie and Darby are made up of every groan-inducing stereotype you can think of. Luckily Driver and Seyfried’s performances are strong en4ough to save the characters, stopping them from being nothing more than quirky caricatures.

Luckily the film leans off these stereotypes a little bit in the second half and the plot becomes more engaging. Despite everything negative I’ve said about it, the film is very good. As much as I enjoyed the previously mentioned Avengers, I’ll always prefer films like this one – ones that work on a small scale. While We’re Young isn’t revolutionary by any means, but it’s just got that indie film vibe that I love. There are loads of great scenes – such as the ayahuasca ceremony that the characters attend – and the film is very funny at times.

This isn’t the sort of film I’d expect to see Ben Stiller in, but he does a really great job. As does Adam Driver. Both actors have to walk a fine line with their characters, bringing out their egotistic personalities while still making them somewhat likeable. And I think they succeed in doing it. Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried also do good jobs but, unfortunately, get a lot less to do. This is a film that is, at its core, about the inflated egos of its two male leads – causing these two women to get pushed to the side a bit. They get tossed their own scenes now and then, but it doesn’t feel like we get as much insight into them as Josh and Jamie. Which is a shame.

While We’re Young is an enjoyable film and I recommend it if you’re a fan of the director. Even if you’re not, watch it anyways. As someone who is frequently pulled along to see big blockbusters, this film was a nice change of pace.

The Island of Dr. Moreau Review: Animal Antics

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 17… The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells

Wells is an author that I’ve always been aware of but, until now, someone whose books I’ve never read. The legacies of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man are undeniable. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sci-fi author that’s had as much influence on literature as Wells has (well, maybe Mary Shelley?) So, with all this in mind, how is The Island of Dr. Moreau? In short, some aspects of it are fantastic and others are… less than fantastic.

After becoming stranded at sea, Prendick, a scientist, is saved by a strange man named Montgomery, who takes him back to an even stranger island. The island of Dr. Moreau. Inhabiting the island are odd creatures who are the results of Moreau’s attempts to turn animals into humans. But the doctor’s creations are far from perfect and slowly begin to return to their original, animalistic states… The three men soon find themselves trapped on the island surrounded by these beasts – thirsty for their blood.

When a friend saw me reading this book the other day, she asked me how it was. My response was: ‘it’s pretty much how you’d expect it to be.’ And I think that’s an accurate description of Moreau; it delivers the premise the back of the book promises but doesn’t really do much else. In many ways, it feels like a concept for novel rather than an actual novel. As if Wells came up with the idea for the island, but not a real plot to take place on it. Much of the book is taken up by Prendick simply exploring the island and Moreau explaining his creation of the beasts. This is by no means a long novel and it feels as though the bulk of plot has been shunted to concluding parts of the book (the plot’s central conflict doesn’t really kick off until chapter 17… and there are 22 chapters). The novel is far more interested in world-building than storytelling.

Despite the amount of time we spend with the characters, all of them feel pretty underdeveloped. Prendick feels like a standard, catalogue-bought male protagonist and does little to make himself stand out. Montgomery becomes more interesting as the novel moves along, due to his sympathy towards the beasts, but we spend far too little time on him interacting with them. Dr. Moreau is okay, but having everything filtered through Prendick’s POV means we don’t get that much insight into him. It’s a shame to say that the dullness of the central character holds all the other ones back, but Prendick never becomes anything more than a reader surrogate. The beast people, in terms of their personalities, are pretty one-note. I understand that they aren’t meant to be very intellectual, but many of them simply repeat the same phrases over and over. I did enjoy the way Wells reflected the traits of the animals on their human personalities – such as the dog-man that acts extremely loyal to Prendick late in the novel – but it doesn’t really make them any more complex. The author seems more interested in the idea of the beast people rather than the actual beast people themselves.

Though I’d say the characters of the novel are lacking, everything else is pretty strong. Wells succeeds in making the beast people truly unsettling creatures – describing their offspring as looking like fleshy rabbits. The whole concept for the novel is pretty original as well. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve seen novels that focus on man becoming more animalistic, but animals turning into humans? It’s brilliantly disturbing. The book also feels very modern despite its age. I don’t think it would’ve felt dated at all if it had been released ten or twenty years ago rather than 119. There are many novels that I love more from the nineteenth century, but I don’t think I can name one that has aged as well as Moreau.

Despite my general negativity (that seems to be a theme with these reviews…), The Island of Dr. Moreau is a pretty strong sci-fi novel… There are just a dozen or so books from the same genre that I’d recommend reading before this one. If you’re looking for an enjoyable, slightly disturbing tale that you can get through in an afternoon, then this is a pretty good choice.

6/10

Top Five TV Shows of 2015 (So Far)

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Is it odd timing to do a television top five? Yes. Yes, it is. But I’m going to do one anyways. We’re only four months (and a bit) into the year and there have been some absolutely fantastic TV shows that have aired so far. There are many shows I’ve wanted to write about this year – such as those that have recently ended – so I thought I’d just do one post to cover them all. Let’s get to it…

(Note: I won’t be listing Mad Men or Game of Thrones simply because they’re still midway through airing their current seasons. The same could be said to apply to number five on this list but, with its sporadic airing, it isn’t likely to finish its current season till next year…)

 


5. Gravity Falls
When I wrote my Top Ten TV Shows of 2014 list, I kind of forgot about Gravity Falls. Due to Disney’s abysmal scheduling, it was a rare event when the show aired episodes for more than one week in a row. That hasn’t changed this year, as the show has recently gone on another long hiatus. Gravity Falls has only aired a mere two – two! – episodes this year but they have been two of the best ones the show has ever had. The second of these episodes resolves many mysteries the show has clutched onto since it first began and is one of the most satisfying half-hours of TV I’ve watched in 2015 so far. That’s enough to grant it a spot on this list.


4. Parks and Recreation
The first of many shows to end their runs this year. I’ve always enjoyed Parks and Recreation with its loveable characters and goofy sense of humour, but found the two seasons preceding this one very so-so. With Leslie’s campaign in Season Four it felt like the show had stagnated – where else could it go? The time skip at the end of Season Six gave the show’s final season an extra spring in its step, allowing it to go down narrative paths it never could before. When you really get down to it though, the final season is just an indulgent farewell tour for all its characters – the finale especially – but I think the show has earned it. And hey, we also got one more classic episode with ‘Leslie and Ron’. I’m going to miss having this show around, although I’m happy it concluded when it did.


3. Better Call Saul
A show that has no right to be as good as it is. When it was first announced that Breaking Bad was getting a spin-off – and one that got a second season order before it aired – I was a little bit grumbly, fearing that it would tarnish its parent show’s good name. Through the first half of its first season, the show proved itself to be a very enjoyable companion to Breaking Bad, being a cut above the many groan-worthy spin-offs that have aired over the years. It’s in the season’s last few episodes, however, that the show got really good. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that I underestimated Bob Odenkirk’s abilities as a dramatic actor. If Better Call Saul replicates the quality of these last few episodes throughout its next season, it could come very close to rivalling the show that it spun off from.


2. The Americans
Oh my god, this show. If I had caught up on the second season by the end of the last year, it easily would’ve made it into the top three shows on my best of 2014 list. The Americans‘ first season was good, if unremarkable – it was entertaining to watch but didn’t do anything too special. The second season upped its game by raising the emotional stakes and giving Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell some really great material to sink their teeth into. And Season Three? Well, I’d say it’s even better. The pacing of this season has been frustrating at times – leaving so many plot threads up in the air until next year – but its emotional core has been as strong as ever. I never expected a show about Cold War spies to make such a great family drama.


1. Justified
Choosing between Justified and The Americans for the top spot was tough. I think overall that The Americans is a better show, but the final season of Justified has been such an incredible amount of fun. It does everything right – finally giving us the Raylan and Boyd head-to-head that people have been craving since the first episode as well bringing in a plethora of great new characters. Sam Elliott is absolutely chilling as Avery Markham and Jonathan Tucker’s Boon led to one of my favourite moments in the finale. In fact, there were just so many great moments in this season – more than you’d get in five or six seasons of another show. Justified’s sixth season more than made up for its lacklustre fifth one and I’m glad that the show got to go out on such a high note.

Birds at Long Last!

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I put up a birdfeeder a couple of months ago and had all but given up on it. Then the other day I decided to install another feeder – filled with peanuts instead of seeds – and for some reason that’s created a frenzy of feathered creatures! This has made me obscenely giddy. I’ve always enjoyed going and searching for birds, so having some visit my garden regularly is fantastic. There have only been some house sparrows – and a pair of goldfinches – but it’s all very exciting to me. I took some photos the other day, though they’re not the best quality as I shot them through the window. Enjoy!

A party of Coal Tit 2A party of Coal TitA party of Coal Tit 3

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to waiting by my window!

Agnes Grey Review: Not that Grey-t

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 16… Agnes Grey (1847) by Emily Brontë

[I’ve been a bit slack when it comes to this blog lately, thanks to everything else in my life being pretty busy. Now that I’ve got some spare time, I plan to play catch-up on my review schedule. So expect a large amount of posts over the next couple of weeks.]

Agnes Grey isn’t a novel that people really talk about that much. While the works of Anne Brontë’s sisters are universally considered classics – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, anyone? – everyone seems to be a little less interested in her writing. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to review Agnes Grey. From what I’ve read, Anne was always the ‘left out’ sister of the Brontë clan, with the other two going on adventures and making projects without her. Because of that, I really wanted to love this novel. I really wanted it to turn out to be an underrated gem. But in reality it isn’t anything special.

The semi-autobiographical novel focuses on a woman named – you guessed it – Agnes Grey. When her father falls ill, the future of her family becomes uncertain and she decides to become a governess to support them. Throughout the novel she works for two different – and equally unbearable – families. The only bright part of her life as a governess, it seems, is the kind parson named Mr Weston, who shows great interest in her…

The plot of the novel isn’t particularly bad – and Anne’s writing style is generally pleasant – but it isn’t particularly good either. It’s forgettable. If you haven’t read the book, you can probably decipher how it ends from my short description. The whole thing just chugs along in a predictable manner. When I finished Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, although I didn’t love them, they really stuck in my mind. I couldn’t help but think about certain characters for weeks and weeks afterwards. That didn’t happen with Agnes Grey. The novel feels like it would’ve been left in the nineteenth century, never to be read again, if Anne’s surname wasn’t Brontë. I can say for certain that nobody reads Agnes Grey these days because it looks like it might be an interesting read, but rather because it was written by the sister of Charlotte/Emily Brontë.

Agnes herself feels very much like a cookie-cutter character. Like too many female protagonists from pre-twentieth century works, she’s a virtuous do-gooder that acts honourably, respectably and very predictably throughout the novel. She doesn’t really have any visible flaws and everything bad that happens to her is somebody else’s fault. Blech. Through this character, the autobiographical side of the novel becomes very clear. At several points in the novel – especially during her first job as a governess – it feels as though Anne is simply ranting about her horrible former-employers. In comparison to Agnes’s glowing goodness, almost every other character is portrayed as a demon. The children pull the legs off birds for fun, the parents are shown to be overly-demanding and the girls she teaches in the second half of the novel lead on men and break their hearts simply to pass the time. A character without flaws – like Agnes – is very hard to find interesting.

I don’t want this review to turn into an endless comparison with her sisters’ novels, but I can’t help but bring up Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. He is a character that’s by no means likeable, but is incredibly complex. I think it was Robert McKee that wrote, to make an interesting character, they need to contain contradictions. Heathcliff is a monster – but he also has deep feelings for Catherine. It doesn’t feel like Agnes has any contradictions at all: there’s nothing to be discovered about her character that we don’t learn when she’s first introduced. To put it bluntly, there isn’t more to her than meets the eye. Emily and Charlotte’s characters feel like puzzles that needed to be solved – Anne’s not so much.

Although I feel pretty meh about the novel overall, there were a few parts that I liked. Rosalie in particular. Maybe because of how little I cared for Agnes, I didn’t expect Rosalie to become such a complex character towards the end of the novel. At first she is presented in the same negative light as other non-Agnes characters – breaking men’s hearts for the fun of it and boasting about her upcoming marriage into a wealthy family – but she comes across as incredibly vulnerable when her former governess visits her after her marriage. Despite her bully-like exterior, through begging Agnes to come and visit her, she reveals herself to be incredibly vulnerable at heart. It feels strange to say that she’s miles more complex than the novel’s protagonist, but it’s true. Agnes visiting her was by far the most interesting part of the book.

Agnes Grey isn’t an awful novel – there are probably dozens more nineteenth century ones that are worse – it’s just forgettable. From what I’ve heard of it, Anne’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, sounds like a much stronger book. And I hope it is. But judging from Agnes Grey alone, I can understand why nobody really talks about Anne Brontë.

5/10

The Winter’s Tale Review: A Shakespearean Oddity

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This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 15… A Winter’s Tale (1623) by William Shakespeare.

What to make of A Winter’s Tale? It’s quite far from being up there with Shakespeare’s classics – Hamlet and pals – but in some respects it’s just as interesting. Mainly because of its structure. The first three acts serve as a miniature tragedy, with the final two being more overtly comedic. This works both for the play and against it.

The first half of the play focuses on Leontes, the King of Sicilia, who fears that his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. He becomes delusional in his attempts to prove this – ignoring the words of the Gods and putting his wife on trial. The second half, taking place sixteen years later, is more focused on the budding romance between Leontes’ daughter, Perdita, and Polinexes’ son, Florizel. This probably sounds awfully strange if you haven’t read the play, right? Both parts are connected, but, in many ways, feel as though they’re written by different authors. It’s almost as if Shakespeare was incredibly indecisive about what he wanted this play to be. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll discuss the play’s tragic and comedic sides separately.

Tragedy: it’s arguably what Shakespeare does best. With such works as King Lear and Macbeth, A Winter’s Tale can’t help but feel a little weak in comparison. As the tragedy is squeezed into three acts, it feels pretty basic and underdeveloped. Leontes, for example, isn’t a very compelling character. His tragic flaw – insecurity – doesn’t make him that likable or interesting. Not that a tragic hero has to be likable, but at the very least he needs to be relatable. Leontes is not. He single-handedly tears his family apart – killing his wife and son and banishing his daughter – despite being given several warnings. The only opinion that matters to Leontes is his own. It is only when he’s destroyed his personal world that he learns the error of his ways.

The age-old theme of loyalty plays an important role in A Winter’s Tale’s first half. Leontes fears that his wife – and his men – are acting disloyal and conspiring against him. In maintaining this view, ironically, he acts disloyal to Hermione – failing to place trust in his wife during a time when it’s most important that he does. He ignores every sign pointing to her innocence – going as far as to denounce the God Apollo to maintain his ignorance. The only person that Leontes is loyal to is himself. When characters betray him it is not out of disloyalty, but for the greater good. Camillo, for example, disobeys him in order to preserve his own life as well as that of another king. The reason Leontes is eventually punished is for putting himself before everyone else.

Leontes’ redemption is something the play skips over. This is probably a good thing – I’m not sure I’d enjoy sixteen years of watching him act pleasant. In many ways the second half of the play is a mirror to the first half. In the first half Leontes has everyone dear to him taken away due to his selfish actions. In the second half Leontes regains his wife and daughter for his good behaviour. It’s the first half played in reverse (though that may be simplifying it a little bit). If tragedy is the story of how someone loses everything through their actions, then comedy is the story of how they gain through them.

The comedy-vibe of the play’s second half is heralded in by the famous stage direction that concludes the third act; ‘Exit, pursued by bear.’ Whether Shakespeare intended for this line to be as comedic as it is, I don’t know. The pure bizarreness of it – it literally comes out of nowhere – makes it impossible for me to read it any other way. The fourth act in particular is heavily comedic and farcical. Almost everyone is wearing a disguise, a central romance is introduced, there’s a clown, many songs are sung and there’s a healthy amount of sexual references. It’s far from the dark, serious tone of the play’s first three acts. It’s as if the first half was developed for a cultured audience and the second for a more lowbrow one. More than any of his other plays, The Winter’s Tale seems to demonstrate Shakespeare’s versatility. It’s a great showcase for his range as a playwright.

Despite its many positive factors, I’m not completely convinced that The Winter’s Tale really works. The comedic second half, in many ways, doesn’t serve as a fitting conclusion to the dramatic opening. In a tragic context the deus ex machine ending – in which a statue of Hermione turns to life – feels like a bit of a cheat. I enjoyed every minute of reading this play (heck, I read twice over in a couple of days) but it’s hard to ignore its flaws. The Winter’s Tale may not be top-tier Shakespeare but it’s definitely worth experiencing.

(7/10)