Review – A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories (Angela McAllister)

Keywords: Shakespeare, fiction, narrative, collection, age 9+, illustrations, classic.

Alice Lindstrom’s portrait of William Shakespeare

At last, an excuse to talk about Shakespeare! We all knew I had to review this guy eventually. I mean, he’s literally one of the most famous writers of all time. I cannot stress enough how famous this guy is. So, let’s look into why he’s so well-known and why we’re even talking about him over 400 years after he passed away.

William Shakespeare was a playwright (a person who writes plays) and poet. He lived from 1564-1616, in England. He was considered a brilliant actor and playwright, even becoming a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I! We’ll be talking about the plays that he would’ve performed for royalty and for countless people who watched them at the Globe Theatre.

The front cover (gorgeous, isn’t it?)

Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. You might have heard of some of his most popular plays before: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you’ve never heard of those plays before, don’t worry! We’re going to explore them a bit in today’s reviewed book: A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories, written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Alice Lindstrom.

A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories is a collection of 12 Shakespearean plays, rewritten as narratives. You can read it on your own or have someone else read it for you (it’s a wonderful bedtime story!). The 12 stories you’ll read in this book are:

Othello and Desdemona from ‘Othello’
  • Romeo and Juliet (a romance between a boy and a girl whose families are sworn enemies)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a comedy where fairies make four people fall in love randomly, leading to hilarious trouble)
  • The Tempest (a story about a shipwreck, a magical island, and a wizard guy)
  • Othello (a tragedy about a man lying so much that a husband thinks his wife is cheating on him)
  • Hamlet (a tragedy about a dramatic prince who sees his murdered father’s ghost and promises to avenge his death)
  • Twelfth Night (a comedy where a girl dresses up as a boy, but when her twin brother comes to town, there’s a lot of confusion!)
  • Macbeth (a man with a powerful wife is driven mad by ambition as he kills people so that he can become king)
  • King Lear (an aging king tells his three daughters that he’ll give his kingdom to the daughter who loves him most, and chooses the wrong daughters)
  • As You Like It (a comedy where the characters fall in love at first sight and have fun in a forest)
  • Much Ado About Nothing (an island where a man is tricked into thinking his fiance is cheating on him, and a man and woman who hate each-other are tricked into falling in love with each-other)
  • The Merchant of Venice (a scheming money-lender tries to trick a man into an evil money loan. The man must be saved in court by a woman dressed up as a man.)
  • Julius Caesar (the historical story of a Roman senator and how his fellow senators assassinated him)
Each story begins by showing the cast of characters

Every single story is well-written and engaging. Having said that, you might prefer some stories over others, depending on the type of stories you like. For example, my personal favourite Shakespearean play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (it was the first of Shakespeare’s plays I’d ever read, and it made me laugh so hard that at one point I spat out my tea!).

“But,” you might ask me, “If the original plays are so good, why would you rewrite them as narratives?” An excellent question! You see, the original plays are written in Elizabethan English. This is the kind of English that was written and spoken while Queen Elizabeth I was ruling England. It’s very different from modern English, since 400 years have changed the language a lot.

King Lear in a storm

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Here’s one part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Hermia is telling her friend Helena that she and her lover Lysander will escape the city to get married. Keep in mind, Hermia is basically just saying, “Helena, I’ll leave Athens with Lysander. Athens used to be such a great place to me, but since I met Lysander, my opinion of Athens has become sour. I just love Lysander so much!”

“Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;

Lysander and myself will fly this place.

Before the time I did Lysander see,

Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.

O then, what graces in my love do dwell,

That he hath turned a heaven unto a hell?”

(Hermia talking to Helena, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 202-207.)

So…yeah. The way the characters speak in the original plays is challenging to understand, especially if you’re not used to Elizabethan English. It takes some practice and reading to understand the original plays.

Ariel the sprite flying over Ferdinand and Miranda in ‘The Tempest’

That’s why 12 of the plays have been rewritten as narratives: to make them easier to read and to be a nice introduction into Shakespeare’s stories. It’d be so easy to be scared by the original plays’ language and think, “Um, I don’t understand this. I don’t want to read anymore.” But then you’d miss out on some of the greatest stories ever written!

So, did I like A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories? Of course! I found it very fun to read and to see how the Elizabethan English can be translated into modern English. The only thing I can criticize is that a lot of cool details and jokes are left out of the narratives. But I think leaving some things out is necessary, since if you wrote absolutely every detail, the book would be way too long. Each story cuts down the plays to its most important details, which means that the stories aren’t usually longer than 4-5 pages.

Puck the fairy putting a love potion on Demetrius’s eyes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The illustrations are really interesting too. They’re paper cutouts painted over in gorgeous colours. I haven’t seen this art style very often in books, so it was lots of fun to look carefully at the illustrations and guess how they were made! Sometimes you can see how the artist used their paintbrush to make different patterns on the characters’ clothes. It’s beautiful work! It makes me want to try out this art style for myself, actually.

This was a long review, I know, but it needed to be long! There’s just so much to talk about when it comes to Shakespeare. If you’re interested in learning more about him and his stories, A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories is a brilliant introduction. You see, there’s information about Shakespeare and the 12 plays at the end of the book!

It’s not only me who enjoyed this book, by the way. Dmitri adored it, since he’s such a fan of Shakespeare (he can even recite passages from Hamlet by heart!). Surprisingly, Gus liked this book too, even though he’s told me before that he doesn’t like Shakespeare’s stuff. When I asked him why he liked this particular book, he said that the way it was written made it easier for him to understand the actual stories. “I don’t understand the original plays,” he said, “So I’m happy that I can enjoy the stories in a way that I do understand!”

Review – Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)

Keywords: fiction, classic, romance, drama, Regency period, for older readers (Year 8+), old-fashioned language.

Image result for jane austen
Jane Austen

So. We’re finally here: the moment where I review something by Jane Austen. As one of the most famous and venerated authors of all time, it was inevitable that I talk about her. This is where things get a bit controversial, though. You see, despite all of the hype and acclaim, I’ve never really liked Jane Austen’s books.

Image result for sense and sensibility art
One of the prettiest book covers ever.

I know, I know, but let me explain! While I grew up adoring all the films – Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey etc. – I never really got into the actual books. It’s one of the rare occurences where I found the films better than the books (as blasphemous as that sounds). Austen’s writing style and tendency to focus on unnecessary details made it difficult for me to enjoy her work. On average, I’d spend 80% of the time sludging through descriptions of money and social activities that I just did not care about. Perhaps it’s because of how books have evolved since the 18th century. We’re just much more used to books that get to the point rather than waltz around a topic. While many people enjoy that lengthy writing style, I do not (unless it’s particularly gorgeous and interesting, like Tolstoy’s stuff).

Having said all of that, there are still some parts of Austen’s books that I enjoy. For example, I love it whenever she’s sarcastic (which is fairly often!). Also, the scenes where characters confess their love are second to none. Mr Darcy’s proclamations of love in Pride and Prejudice, for example, will always be one of my favourite moments in literary history. It makes me sigh just thinking about it!

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic. Let’s talk about Sense and Sensibility, the first book Jane Austen ever published.

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Elinor Dashwood played by Emma Thompson (you might know her as Nanny McPhee!)

The story is based on one of my favourite tropes: two main characters who are polar opposites. Sisters Elinor and Marianne are completely different in disposition. Where Elinor is completely sensible and in control of her emotions, Marianne is a hopeless romantic. They are on totally different sides on the spectrum of emotion management. Marianne’s tendency to fully give into her emotions and be as clear as possible with her opinions can seem a bit much, especially when compared to Elinor’s behaviour. However, we soon see that Elinor herself is pretty flawed too. She’s able to control herself, yes, but she never communicates about her emotions. Ever. When the sisters meet men they’re interested in – soft-spoken Edward for Elinor and rambunctious Willoughby for Marianne – their personality flaws come into full view. Basically, Sense and Sensibility is a classic tale of “two opposites learn from each-other and become better people by the end”.

The drama and plot twists add to the novel’s spiciness and were by far the most enjoyable parts to read. I also loved whenever Colonel Brandon was in a scene. Despite being rejected by Marianne, he still cares about her and strives to make her happy. He’s just such a sweet guy and I want to give him a huge hug. The fact that he’s played by Alan Rickman in the 1996 film probably influences my opinion too. 🙂

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Colonel Brandon played by Alan Rickman (you might know him as Snape from Harry Potter!)

As for the flaws, I’ve already detailed them at the beginning when I ranted about Jane Austen. There were many unnecessary descriptions and scenes that added little to the plot or to my own enjoyment. The writing style was a bit difficult to comprehend sometimes, but that’s because of how old-fashioned it is (I mean, it was written in the early 1800’s!).

Please know that I don’t hate this book. On the contrary, I recommend it! For one thing, it’s a good reading comprehension exercise. If you’re finding your reading to be too basic, try challenging yourself by reading this. It’ll certainly add muscle to your reading comprehension skills as well as your vocabulary! Also, I found it fascinating to see the differences between the book and the 1996 film adaptation (a movie I’ve seen approximately 50 times). The actress who plays Elinor, Emma Thompson, wrote the screenplay and she basically did what I would’ve done: she trimmed out the unnecessary details and focused on the main plot. Plus, she added one or two things that made the film so much more enjoyable. Definitely consider watching the 1996 film after reading the original book!

Clearly, this is a classic book. Because of its historic value, Dmitri heartily recommends it. The book is technically slice-of-life since it shows the daily lives of those in the 18th-19th century. So, Jenny also quite enjoyed Sense and Sensibility.

Review – The Iliad (Homer, translated by Kathleen Olmstead)

Listen to this narration while you read!

Keywords: classic, Greek, historical fiction, Greek mythology, Greek gods and goddesses like Zeus and Aphrodite, abridged, war, politics, revenge.

My flawless drawing of how the Trojan war started 😂

I know what some of you must be thinking: “But Miss, The Iliad is one of those boring classics that we’re forced to learn about. It’s not fun. Why are you reviewing it?”

I understand. Honestly, I was the same when I was a younger student. Classic books that I heard about from adults and TV (The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex etc.) sounded too difficult for me to read. To be honest, some of them are — especially in their original old-fashioned format! But this book is different.

This version of The Iliad has been translated and rewritten by Kathleen Olmstead. Homer – the original author – wrote the book in an ancient Greek (Homeric Greek). It’s a mixture of different Greek dialects. For most of us (including myself), that’d be very difficult to read. Plus, the original book was actually an epic poem (‘epic’ as in the type of poem, although it is very epic and awesome as well!). It was 15,693 lines long. Imagine how long it must’ve taken Homer to write it and Kathleen Olmstead to translate it! To understand just how tricky it would have been to write and translate Homeric Greek, here are the first seven lines of the original version:

Zeus showing off how cool he is (he does this a LOT)

Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε δαῖτα· Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή·
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

(Listen to how these Homeric Greek lines are spoken here! Skip to 34 seconds.)

This language is so beautiful! As it’s a dead language, not many people learn it anymore (or even want to). That’s a shame. Sure, it’s a complex language, but its history and alphabet are just too cool to be ignored! Having said that, you’ll probably want to start with a translated one first. Don’t worry: the Classic Starts version of The Iliad is far more readable than Homer’s original. You get to learn more about Greek mythology and how the gods and goddesses made decisions. The book is about the Trojan war, a 10-year battle between the city of Troy and the Achaeans (AKA the Greeks). You’ll hear a lot of famous names in this book, like Achilles, Zeus and Odysseus. It’s fun to see what kind of people these famous characters are! (Apparently, Achilles is the kind of person who throws temper tantrums. You also find out how stubborn Zeus really is.)

Helen of Troy (looking very annoyed for some reason)

Basically, the whole reason for the Trojan war is because of a fight between three goddesses: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They fight over an apple that’s meant for the ‘fairest’ goddess. In this case, ‘fairest’ means ‘most beautiful’. The goddesses decide to ask Paris, prince of the city of Troy, to state who is the most beautiful. He chooses Aphrodite as the winner. As a reward, she gives prince Paris the most beautiful mortal woman in the world: Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. So, Aphrodite basically stole the king’s wife and gave her to another city’s ruler.

That’s how the Trojan war began. It was fought for ten years. That’s right: ten years. The soldiers must have been exhausted! I bet their distress and tiredness is even stronger in the original version. All the more reason to study Homeric Greek!

Let’s just say that The Iliad is a classic for a reason. It’s filled with drama, godly powers and fighting. Even though he doesn’t read many books, Gus is a fan of The Iliad. It’s a great story to read through slowly just before you go to sleep! Since he’s a historian, Dmitri, of course, is a huge Homer fan. He has read every version of The Iliad, even the original Greek one! Both Gus and Dmitri recommend the Classic Starts version of The Iliad.