Simon Reade’s Dear Mr Shakespeare (subtitle, “Letters to a Jobbing Playwright”) is wonderful in both conceit and execution. Watch the career of the Swan of Avon develop through a series of career-spanning fictional letters from Elizabethan equivalents of the sort of people modern playwrights have to deal with – Directors and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs, Producers and Sales Managers and academics.
It’s even odds whether this counts as an epistolary novel or a sort of Shakespeare vade mecum. I’ve gone for the former, but it’s certainly far more faithful to history than any of the Bard’s actual Histories.
It occasionally rings a little false – lines like “with a gun to their head” could easily have been recast to preserve the Elizabethan character of the setting. Similarly, certain turns of phrase read like they were lifted from twentieth-century writing about Shakespeare: “Shakespeare’s Spanish contemporaries” and “Don’t forget Ephesus is associated with witchcraft for the Elizabethans” could have been replaced, with no loss of sense, with “the Spanish” (we know that the present tense refers to Shakespeare’s contemporaries!) and “Don’t forget the customary association of Ephesus with witchcraft.” But that’s a very minor quibble. Overall, it’s a pretty fantastic book. Watch the delightfully nerdy Loren go from intern to employee. Watch Luke Strong remain steady in his role as Artistic Director for most of the book before becoming enmeshed (embroiled?) in the shifting sands and internal politicking of executive-level appointments. Chuckle at the Royal National Classical Ensemble of New Works and Devised Performance for the Lyric Playhouse and Found Space, “or R.N.C.E.N.W.D.P.L.P.F.S. for short.” And be gently reminded that Shakespeare, in addition to being susceptible of literary analysis, is for performance, “a man of the theatre, not of the lecture theatre.”
By turns fun-poking and informative (and often both), this is an excellent book for those with, like me, an interest in Shakespeare, but comparatively little rigorous grounding.
I should really read Cymbeline…
Sharpe’s Battle and Sharpe’s Company have, in many respects, similar plots: Sharpe solves his latest problem by doing something stupidly brave. It’s a common enough plot for the series, which makes much of Sharpe’s constant need to prove himself – to the establishment and to himself. But it works. Cornwell is a skilful blender of character with history; he writes action sequences compellingly and evocatively. And every book is nicely self-contained, which makes it easy to pick up two written more than a decade apart and read them out of publication order.
I have not heard him laugh often, and it always boded ill to somebody.
One of the four original Sherlock Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles is genuinely wonderful. Although short stories make up the vast majority of the canon, there’s never any sense of the tedious or the drawn out. On the contrary; it’s tightly written and immensely enjoyable. Large sections of the book involve no Holmes whatsoever – instead, we hear about Dr Watson’s investigations from the letters he writes back to Baker Street – and that, I think, might be part of the reason. We’d expect the Great Detective, if on-screen, to be working rapidly, and we’d skip from important point to important point. When Watson is solo, on the other hand, his investigations are necessarily less focused, more in the nature of general scouting and information gathering than anything.
“I have been to Devonshire.”
“Exactly. My body has remained in this arm-chair; and has, I regret to observe, consumed in my absence two large pots of coffee and an incredible amount of tobacco.”
Dear Mr Shakespeare
Author Simon Reade
Best line “Luke no longer wants to champion classical new plays but classical new plays. (Call me old-fashioned and off-message, but personally I’m all in favour of classical new plays.)”
Best character Loren Spiegelei. She really is gloriously nerdy.
Author Bernard Cornwell
Best character Tom Garrard.
Author Bernard Cornwell
Pages I’ve very foolishly left the book somewhere I can’t get at it to check. About the same as Battle? 
Best character Robert Knowles.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Best character Dr Mortimer.