Review | Macbeth, Jo Nesbo

33952851In this latest addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Jo Nesbo reimagines Macbeth as an urban drug war with Duncan the Police Chief Commissioner out to clean the city and Macbeth the SWAT Team leader gunning for his job. The result is a fast-paced, gritty thriller that feels real, emotionally complex, and contemporary.

Nesbo replaces the three witches and their prophecies of Macbeth’s future with gang members reporting to Hecate, a drug lord who controls the city and some of its most powerful residents with his potent cocktail called ‘brew’. What fate appears to have decreed in Shakespeare’s original, Hecate orchestrates in Nesbo’s novel, seeing in Macbeth an opportunity to redirect the police force’s focus to a rival drug lord who specializes in heroin and in turn maintain his own hold on the city. Later in the novel, his team develops a new, more powerful drug called ‘power’, and the metaphor is a bit too on the nose to be clever, but I like his characterization overall, and as a villain, he’s ruthless enough to power a full series of Ian Rankin-type detective fiction.

From high school classes on Macbeth, I remember a lot of the ‘good’ characters being morally upright. Duncan was a good and beloved king, Banquo was an upstanding citizen, and even Macbeth was more a weak man who fell prey to fate and his wife’s ambition than a morally corrupt man in his own right. So I was glad to see the ‘good’ characters being much more morally ambiguous in Nesbo’s version. Duncan was indeed moral in that he was committed to eradicating drugs in his city, but it’s unclear how much he knew and chose to ignore the corruption around him. It’s also unclear how much his promotion of Macbeth was based on merit and how much it was a political move to cement his reputation as someone not susceptible to cronyism (more on this later).

Moreover, Macbeth’s own ambition was more evident here, and any demurring about power feels suspect. Lady (here, the powerful owner of a hotel and casino) still has to prod him to commit murder, but the fact that Hecate sees him as a viable target in the first place shows that he isn’t quite as incorruptible as I remember from the Shakespeare original. When we first meet him, he has taken his team on a rogue assignment to provide backup if needed to a drug bust that his professional rival Duff has set up. His motives may be partly admirable (to ensure the drug traffickers are apprehended), but there also seems clear desire to be the one who saves the day.

While Macbeth’s fall from morality is still the core of this story, it’s Duff who I thought really shone as a character in Nesbo’s take. The Macduff I remember from the play was more an anti-Macbeth foil, whose actions mostly took place offstage. Nesbo’s Duff is a lot more dynamic and complex. He’s an orphan like Macbeth yet he managed to make it into privileged social circles. More than even Macbeth and Lady, Duff burns with ambition and has carefully tailored his career to lead him into Duncan’s inner circle and position himself as a future Chief Commissioner. Unfortunately, this backfires on him when Duncan decides he can’t show any appearance of favouritism in choosing a second-in-command and needs to promote someone who hasn’t supported him in his rise to power. Worse, his ambition leads him to make some bad decisions on his job, which in turn leads to him botching the drug bust at the beginning of the novel and giving Macbeth an opportunity to step in as a hero.

I absolutely love Duff’s story arc, and empathized so much with his (ultimately self-sabotaging) desire for recognition. Nesbo shows us more of Duff’s role in investigating Duncan’s death and seeing Macbeth as a suspect, and I love that Duff’s interest in the case isn’t just based on moral reasons but also inextricably linked to his own ambition and professional jealousy. He’s a complex, complicated figure, and so much more real than I remember from the original.

Moreover, I love how Nesbo has created this world with such depth. Whereas fate and one couple’s ambition dictated the crimes in the original, Nesbo’s novel clarifies (for me at least) how much of a role the environment plays in shaping the events of the story. Macbeth, Duncan and Duff all navigate a world that is already rife with poverty, corruption and crime; the crimes of individual characters seem almost inconsequential in comparison. Even if Hecate and the other drug lord are defeated, even if Duncan stayed on as Chief Commissioner, would that have solved the problems of their city or would other drug lords or other forms of corruption simply take their place? It’s a question with no clear answer, yet it’s possibly the reason this novel feels so contemporary. We can imagine this city existing in today’s world, and we are all too aware of how much work is needed to change it and how little the effects of such change can feel in the immediate future. Possibly as well this is why Duff resonates so much with me, because he’s a hero I can imagine existing in real life, whose heroism is compromised yet no less effective. Many of the other characters benefit as well, feeling much more complex and real than I remember from the original.

Nesbo’s Macbeth is a powerful tale and just a thrill ride of a read. I love how the books I enjoyed in the Hogarth Shakespeare series are good in such wildly different ways. Nesbo’s Macbeth is certainly one of my favourites, possibly second-best only to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed, and I highly recommend delving into it yourself.

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Macbeth will be published in April 2018.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and Netgalley for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Blood Sisters, Jane Corry

35580277Years ago, three young girls are walking to school when a terrible accident ends up killing one and seriously injuring another. The third, Alison, grows up to be an artist and gets a job teaching art in prison. Her younger sister, Kitty, sustains a brain injury and ends up living in an institution, still cognizant of the world around her, but unable to talk and unable to remember anything about that fateful day. While working at the prison, Alison begins receiving death threats that refer to the day of the accident and make her realize that the past is catching up to her, and someone is out for revenge.

Blood Sisters is a good thriller that, like Corry’s earlier novel My Husband’s Wife, uses the psychological effects of trauma as the jump-off point for a twisty suspense story. In this book, the secrets mostly revolve around the events of the day of the accident, and similar to My Husband’s Wife, the twists got a bit much at the end, as lies upon lies upon half-truths are revealed. In particular, one of the major reveals about the accident hinged on the police making a major oversight that, forensically, didn’t quite make sense to me. I won’t post a spoiler in this review, but this Q&A on Goodreads is about this very snag. There is also a reveal about one of the prisoners that seemed a bit overdone; the way that storyline ended felt sudden and I didn’t really understand the motivations of the characters around it.

That being said, I loved the relationship between the sisters, and wish it had been developed further. I liked how Alison’s career as an artist is somewhat linked to her past with her sister, how she feels connected to her sister even when they weren’t getting along, and how her fear over the truth coming out leads to her having somewhat cruel thoughts about her sister’s chances at recovery. I also thought Kitty’s storyline was strong. I loved how Corry portrayed her frustration at the people around her constantly misunderstanding her, and I liked the research into communications technology for non-verbal individuals. But most of all, I loved her romantic subplot, and how it ends up showing how much of her personality from childhood is still part of her. Often, when minor characters in fiction have disabilities, they’re portrayed with an angelic light and are mostly geared towards eliciting sympathy. While Kitty started out somewhat like that, I like that she turns out to be just as complex a character as she was before the accident.

Blood Sisters is a solid thriller that felt somewhat tighter than My Husband’s Wife, but likely because the reveals mostly revolved around a single incident and because the characters didn’t change quite as much, it also felt slower and somewhat less compelling.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | My Husband’s Wife, Jane Corry

31227076Shortly after her honeymoon, Lily gets assigned her first case as a lawyer: appealing the conviction of a man, Joe, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend. Socially awkward and good with numbers and data, Joe reminds Lily of her brother, and she finds herself feeling a connection with him despite her determination to keep their relationship professional. Lily’s husband Ed is an aspiring artist, and despite being newly married, the couple is already becoming emotionally distant and Lily is beginning to fear that Ed is cheating on her with his ex. Down the hall from Lily and Ed live nine-year-old Carla and her mother. When Lily agrees to take care of Carla on weekends when her mother is at work, she unwittingly lets the girl into the secrets of her marriage, and twelve years later, Carla returns to Lily’s home to seek revenge.

My Husband’s Wife is an exciting and compelling thriller about the ways in our experiences in childhood can affect us all our lives. I especially love the character of Lily, who started off an an overweight, plain, insecure woman but then developed into a formidable force in the legal world. Her jealousy at the beginning over Ed’s ex-girlfriend was a bit much, and it was only as more of the characters were revealed later on that I realized where her insecurity was coming from. I couldn’t quite understand Joe’s appeal to Lily, as I found him an untrustworthy manipulator from the beginning, but I think Corry did a good job of revealing later on why his similarities to Lily’s brother had such an effect on her.

The book takes its time in unveiling the various truths behind each character’s experience, and as a result, my sympathies switched between the characters throughout a lot of the book. The ending had a few too many twists in the reveals, which is an odd critique of a thriller, but there was a point where it felt like the author was a magician unveiling trick after trick from her hat with full-on jazz hands.

Otherwise, this is an entertaining thriller and a fun read.

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Jane Corry’s new thriller Blood Sisters will be published this January. Keep an eye on this blog for my review!

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.