Quick book picks for April

With a whole load of books out this month, it was actually hard to pick out some recommendations. These are a mixed bunch aimed at a variety of audiences, but not limited to those audiences. Click on the title links to full reviews for more details.

  • I Still Dream by James Smythe – A novel about a girl who builds an AI to listen to her problems and how that AI becomes so much more, but also stays as her personal friend and confidant. Proof that books about tech can also be about memory, loss, and the minutiae of people’s lives.
  • The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla – A story of three generations of the same family, and how their different cultural experiences in Kenya, Keighley, and beyond and their differences of opinion and life shape how they interact.
  • Clean by Juno Dawson – Exciting whilst also hard-hitting, Clean is a young adult novel about addiction, but also about privilege, what makes people different, and how you can have sympathy for abrasive characters. Treats the subject matter seriously, but is also witty and clever.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller – Miller turns from the Iliad to the Odyssey in this rewriting of the story of Circe that weaves together a great deal of stories, showing the tension between gods and mortals from the perspective of an outcast.
  • The Chosen Ones by Scarlett Thomas – The next book in Thomas’ charming magical children’s series that imagines a world where electricity is no longer reliable and magic and books become crucial.
  • Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The next book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series takes Macbeth and gives it a crime thriller treatment that strips that magic and retains the paranoid corruption. Undoubtably will be popular in libraries.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Ex-addict cop Macbeth in a grey town: Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been a fairly up and down ride (which I’ve been reviewing my way through). Some of the modern novelisations of Shakespeare’s plays have worked better than others, as might be predicted. With Macbeth, Jo Nesbo goes for a direct approach. From the title (unlike the others in the series, this new version isn’t renamed) to the plot, this is recognisably Macbeth. The title character is updated to an ex-drug addict cop in a town beset by two major gangs, corruption, and drugs, in a relationship with Lady, the proprietress of one of the town’s two casinos. As expected, it doesn’t take long after a bloody drug bust for Macbeth to see a chance to rise rapidly up the ranks. Whatever it takes.

Macbeth as a gritty crime thriller perhaps isn’t all that surprising. One notable element is the lack of the supernatural: in Shakespeare’s play, the otherworldliness is one of the most memorable elements, from the weird sisters to visions that could be madness or magic. In Nesbo’s version, Hecate is a crime boss and visions come from drugs and trauma. Macbeth isn’t so much caught up in fate as caught up in the world of gangs and police corruption, where promises are made and broken and allegiances quickly cast off. Some will be disappointed in this grittier focus, but it foregrounds the fact that it only takes a few suggestions of potential power to push Macbeth forward, even without the showmanship of the supernatural.

The large cast of characters are woven together as questions of who is a traitor to who run throughout the novel. This element feels very Shakespearean; it is, like with many of Shakespeare’s plays (and indeed as with many crime novels), easy to forget who is who to begin with. Macbeth has an extended past with Duff, giving the novel a central relationship that is far more powerful than Macbeth’s with Lady (Macbeth), who in this version seems downplayed.

Nesbo has created a solid rewrite of Macbeth, placing the titular figure’s ambitious and bloody story amidst a grim drug-stricken landscape. Perhaps impressively, one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays becomes a long novel. Sometimes it drags, but a lot of the time the length is to follow conventions of the crime genre: following numerous characters through set ups, personal problems, and remembrances of their tormented pasts. Using a specific genre gives this addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series a sense of purpose, a reason for existing that highlights how the original play is similar and different to a crime story.