Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I will admit right off that I've never read The Tempest. This reinterpretation of the play though appealed to me because of my love for Margaret Atwood, as well as my belief that she'd do something fascinating to read having Shakespeare as her source material. 

I was right.

Shakespeare commonly employs the idea of a play within a play in his stories. He does it in Hamlet with the players reenacting Hamlet's dad's death, and he does it again in The Tempest as Prospero pulls the strings of the narrative on a small island to control the stranded characters. It really is an interesting tactic to be the playwright, writing a character who acts much like a play director with the impressive power of controlling reality. It's this central method of driving the action through control that Atwood takes hold of in Hag-Seed.

The biggest difference between Hag-Seed and it's source material is nobody is plotting to kill anyone in Atwood's version. Instead, the story starts with an assassination of a career. There's also no magic in the retelling, which factors pretty strongly in Shakespeare's play. Atwood replaces the magic with human intelligence and technology/special effects. The play within a play concept is all over the place as you spend most of the book with characters getting ready to put on The Tempest only to end up watching them perform a separate show for a special audience while the original play airs to the public on video. Sound a little confusing? Well, it's Shakespeare after all, so you're right where you should be.

Set inside a state prison, the players are all inmates participating in a theater program being offered as a kind of creative outreach. The main character, Felix, is a "ruined" theater director hiding out as the teacher while he bides his time for revenge on those who destroyed his career. The play within the play enables Felix to exact his revenge, and it's a doozy. 

So, the plot is Shakespeare, but the story is all Atwood. She infuses the story with a reality that Shakespeare lacks. Where he uses magic and dumb luck to drive his narrative, Atwood has her cast of characters work to set everything into place. I also feel as if there is more good in Atwood's version than in the original. Along the way of plotting his revenge, Felix ends up being quite a good person. He teaches for multiple years at the prison, always Shakespeare, inspiring inmates to think creatively, interpret literature, and brave the stage. He forces them to work together and try things outside of their comfort zones. He puts light and purpose into an otherwise dark place. Yes, Felix ultimately uses his players to exact his revenge, but he never forces it, these people are loyal because of what Felix has already taught them.

I really love the angle Atwood took to The Tempest in Hag-Seed, how she modernized the story, making a set of varied and imperfect characters come together to do a little good while having a little fun at others' expense. Atwood is such a creative writer and gives so much attention to flushing out all her characters. This is a great read and a fun way to bring a little Shakespeare into your book bag.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Why I keep reading YA fiction

I was born into a family of readers, and it has really paid off over the years. Book recommendations are always forthcoming, leading me to authors I love much sooner in life as well as those I'd never have discovered myself. It's how I ended up loving Louisa May Alcott when I was still pretty young (thanks Aunt K), how I found authors like Nelson DeMille and Robin Cook (thanks Dad), and even how I ended up tearing through VC Andrews novels throughout high school and into college (thanks Mom.)

I continue to love having people in my life who are big readers, people with whom I pass book suggestions back and forth each time we get together. The question, "So, what you are reading?" comes up more often than most others and it's wonderful.

My daughter, who's eight, is just getting to that stage where books are grabbing her attention. More than anything I want to help expose her to great reads. So far, I'm struggling due to her love of graphic novels, which didn't exist when I was a kid and isn't something I read very often. She doesn't fully trust my suggestions when I hand her a book that's solely text. Pippi Longstocking was tossed aside with disdain when I offered it up, but she really liked it when read by her second grade teacher. I know the love for books is there, so I'm working on getting caught up on YA content.

My desire to be somewhat of a book resource for my kids has made me realize I need to know about YA titles published this century. Not just Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but other books that will appeal to a younger reader. As a result, I try to read YA books I wouldn't typically pick up. This is what drew me to the first descendants novel.
I've seen the moves on Disney, but wanted to know if the books stacked up as a possible referral to my daughter.

I have no idea if my kids will be into these, we don't watch a lot of Disney princess movies, but after finishing the first book, I'm looking forward to the second. The writing is definitely geared toward a younger audience, but the story is developed enough to entertain an adult reader. Unlike the movies, the first book is only about the children of villains as they try to live up to parental expectations and fight off feelings of inadequacy. They also learn about friendship even though it goes against their villainous nature. Isle of the Lost is a strong combination of adventure and age-appropriate life lessons good for young readers.

I honestly can't recommend you add this book to your To Read list unless you're a parent who, like me, wants to have an arsenal of books at the ready for when your children come complaining, "I don't know what to read next...."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is an amazing writer with a special talent of adding a little magic to the everyday. It's what makes you identify with her stories and care about her characters, even when things take a slightly fantastic turn.

In The Probable Future, we're introduced to the Sparrow Family, a line of women who receive a unique gift upon their 13th birthday. This gift, a special ability, seems to suit the recipient well, yet often leads to trouble when integrated into the outside world.

This is especially true for Stella, the youngest Sparrow, who's able to see how some people will die. Her desire to save people, coupled with this gift gets her into trouble, puts her dad in jail, and sets in motion the entire book.

Forced to leave her home in Boston, Stella is taken back to her mom's home town and a grandmother she's never met. The matriarch, Elinor, knows when you're lying. Jenny, Stella's mom, experiences other people's dreams alongside them. All three women end up at Cake House, in Unity, Mass., a town built upon the horrible death of a Sparrow ancestor, who couldn't feel pain.

It's a broken town, symbolized by the ancient, dying tree in the center square. Full of people who don't have what they need most, the rejoining of the Sparrow women helps transform the town. Inhabitants learn that destiny isn't something set in stone, that you have to take control of your own future to change it, and that sometimes, a very clear prediction is wrong.

If I could have read this whole book through in a single sitting, I would have. I loved everything about it: the New England backdrop, the depth of history, the complexity of emotions. Each character learns something so valuable by the end of the story - you feel proud to have seen into a little bit of their lives. In true Hoffman fashion, those who feel lost find their way, even if the path curved in some unexpected directions.

Read this. Read lots of Hoffman.

Other Alice Hoffman books reviewed on this site:

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time - The Graphic Novel Adapted and Illustrated by Hope Larson

Let me just preface this review by saying A Wrinkle in Time was the quintessential book of my childhood. My mom would take me to the library on a regular basis in elementary school and I would only check out one of two, or both, books, and this was one of them. I have no idea how many times I've read it, but it opened the door into sci-fi and fantasy books for me and taught me that smart stories could be the most entertaining.

It was very appealing to me to see this story adapted into a graphic novel because I felt that it would bring the story to a whole other world of readers, namely my almost eight-year-old daughter, who prefers graphic novels to traditional novels at this stage. Of course, I had to read it first. I hope that one day she picks it up herself and falls as much in love with Meg and this story as I did (and then maybe wants to read the other three books related to the family.)

I found the art to be perfectly complimentary to the story. Pitting a simple, two-color design, against a story riddled with complex emotions, advanced physics, and the idea of time travel brought an added level of accessibility into the story that would have probably been beneficial to my childhood self the very first time I read the book. There is a lot of abstract thinking required to get through L'Engle books, so illustrations definitely help. I really enjoyed seeing the characters and experiencing their emotions through the pictures as well as through the text.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, I'm just going to tell you to read the book. It doesn't matter how old you are, this is an exciting and powerful story, rooted in family and devotion and the power of the personal connection. It honors people who are a little different, feel a little out of place in a unique and significant way, and it makes science and math accessible.

The only thing would drive me to suggest the full novel over the graphic version is how the ending plays out. Possibly due to the format of a graphic novel, the ending of the story felt less powerful reading it in this version. That could easily just be a result of my familiarity with the story overall, but, in my opinion, everything builds up a little higher in the novel. That isn't to say you get any less story in this version though, and the quickness of a graphic novel read is always nice, so really the choice of where to go to get into this story is up to you, but don't miss out and do more than just watch the movie.