Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Review

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood Muse Monthly book review

I want to share a little story about how this epic partnership came to be. Even before Muse Monthly officially launched, I knew I wanted to do author curated boxes. It was something I could only dream about, and had a wishlist of people I wanted to work with. But of course, when a business is young, you have to stay reasonable. No one knew about Muse Monthly yet, and there was no way someone who had published several award-winning novels would want to dedicate any time to a new subscription box.

After our collaboration with V.E. Schwab (which happened because I asked her through instagram), I felt a little more confident in asking my publishing friends if we could do something similar again. I asked who had books coming out that might be interested, and a few names were tossed around, Ms. Atwood’s being one of them. Never in a million years did I think she’d agree to it – but they asked, and she did.

Of course, it helps that she’s a tea lover.

I feel so grateful to Ms. Atwood for taking time out and signing bookplates, choosing a tea, and writing a lovely letter about her book to our faithful subscribers. This collaboration was beyond a dream come true.

I knew Hag-Seed was going to be a fantastic read. The Tempest was the first Shakespeare play I ever read, so I feel a lot of attachment to the story. It was assigned my eighth grade year and I remember being swept up by the magic, by spirits and monsters and revenge. It is one of Shakespeare’s best.

Ms. Atwood has taken the tale and not only modernized it, but presented it in a way that feels so real and concrete it is impossible not to flip eagerly through the pages. Her take on the Tempest changes Prospero to Felix, an artistic director for the theater, who is usurped and fired by his co-worker, Tony. Felix, devastated to lose his job after also losing his wife and child, Miranda, takes a job teaching Shakespeare in a prison. Here, he is able to use his talents and bring his production of the Tempest to life.

Atwood presents a meta-theatrical version of the Tempest – a play within a play, echoing aspects of the original play. The creation of theatrical magic is paramount in Atwood’s version, primarily present in how the prisoners bring the play to life with limited resources. Atwood brings The Tempest into a real world; the prison becomes the island, betrayal is bureaucratic. Atwood expertly writes the themes reflected on multiple levels – the ‘real world’ finding echoes in Shakespeare’s text, as well as the play being mirrored by the characters. She writes with an expert intricacy, and creates an intense revenge plot that makes Hag-Seed a real page-turner.

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo – Review & Playlist

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo book review Muse Monthly

The Gentleman was one of those books that came along to me as an underdog. A lot of the time when I’m choosing a book, there are a few options for each month, but one stand out. Then, like this month, there were a lot of books that seemed exciting but were just not right for some reason – either the story just wasn’t as compelling as I’d hoped, or it’s too similar to something we’ve done before. And then something different, something I would have never thought to look at will emerge from under my disastrously large To Be Read pile, and it will be perfect. A diamond in the rough.

And that’s what we do over here at Muse Monthly – we’re all about finding that hidden gem.

And The Gentleman was just awesome. It’s a fun, easy read, which we all need sometimes. We all need a laugh, especially when the real would can be so stressful.

What stands out for me about The Gentleman is how easily writer Forrest Leo captures the style of Victorian literature. The narrative voice of lovelorn poet Lionel Savage is strong throughout, colored by the sassy footnotes of his fictional editor. For someone who enjoys the anachronism, it was refreshing to read something so wonderfully stylized. And the story itself brought to mind the best of adventure stories – Around the World in 80 Days meets the tales of Allan Quatermain meets Doctor Faustus, with hilarious mishaps and trysts along the way. It’s safe to say, you’ll never read another book like The Gentleman. It’s nerdy and weird and funny, and best read with a lovely cup of tea – or maybe a glass of wine.

The Muse by Jessie Burton – Review & Playlist

The Muse by Jessie Burton Muse Monthly book review

So I will admit that I was a little hesitant to pick this book up, simply because of the title. Cuz, you know. It’s a bit too obvious a choice, right? But I’m so glad I did, because I was really blown away by how perfect this book was for Muse Monthly. It was just the right thing at the right time, and everything seemed to fit together so well. I was looking for a book that not only had a great story with historical elements, but also shown a light on the complexities of women – and The Muse does just that.

If I had to pick a single word to describe this book, that word would be ‘passion’ – and we talk about passion in lots of different ways. We can talk about the obvious – about passion between people and of people, about lust and the many facets of human affection. We can talk about passion turning to obsession. We can talk about the dangers of passion, and how quickly it can become desperation. We can talk about Odelle and the slow burn between herself and her Mr. Scott, about passion that builds slow and steady as someone’s walls come crumbling down. We can talk about passion that is immediate and intense, like when Olive sets eyes on Issac like he’s a target. We can talk about passion in secret, passion that hides away, that comes through in stolen glances. And we can talk about passion that leads to heartbreak, and the tragedy of Theresa wanting what she can’t have.

But at the same time we can also talk about passion as it relates to art, and an artist’s passion for their work and for creating. I think the story of Olive’s talent having to be hidden away due to her family circumstances is a compelling one when we think about the lengths she took to get her work seen. We still live in a world that can be difficult for women who make art, and many women (famously JK Rowling and and the Bronte sisters) adopt male personas to sell or market their work. It is this act that causes the lives of two families to intertwine and tangle. But did she have another choice? At the same time we also have to talk about Marjorie Quick and her passion. The enigmatic Quick is the point around which the story spirals, and we see her careful passion for art and her work, as well as the secrets and lies that she has built her life upon. And Quick showcases another important aspect of the story – a support for other women, and the importance of female friendships and the relationships between women in the novel.

The Muse is a novel that a reader can easily get wrapped up in. The writing is intense and realistic, and the story unravels in the most brilliant way. It’s exciting to follow the lines that connect people through history, and Jessie Burton does an amazing job of showcasing all the passions of a full life.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – Review & Playlist

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi novel book book review Muse Monthly subscription box  Ghana

Okay, okay yeah, I know. It’s not a beach read. But bare with me, okay?

I go through a lot of books before making a choice for each month. Sometimes it’s 3, sometimes it’s more like 6. And sometimes, rarely, there is The One. Sometimes there’s a novel that is just the choice, the only choice, the most epic and brilliant thing I’ve read, head and shoulders above the rest. It’s like the clouds part and a choir of angels descend.

Homegoing was definitely a ‘choir of angels’ moment. It’s an expertly woven tale of a family separated – two half-sisters at the start and their subsequent sons and daughters. Each chapter is a unique history, bringing us through time on two different continents. Through Gyasi’s storytelling, we as readers are absolutely transported. Homegoing gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “take a walk in someone else’s shoes”.

Gyasi has really written an epic of the black experience in America and beyond, a full-bodied story of humanity, each generation individual and rife with problems unique to the characters and their respective time periods. Each story stands both on it’s own and as a collective, creating an intricate puzzle of a family tree. It is a story of slavery, of racism and oppression, of loss and love, of family. But most of all, it is a story of resilience.

Since each chapter is a new person’s story, Gyasi has risen to the challenge of completely fleshing out these characters within a shorter time span. There is a sense of pride in these characters – even through hardship, their conviction remains strong, they remain truthful to themselves and their people even when they are being taken advantage of, and a lot of advantage is taken. But they remain, throughout all that, rooted in themselves and their families. There is always a sense of moving forward, and while where they came from is always important, never are they stuck.

I think there’s a lot we can take away from Homegoing, as readers. Personally I love books like this, where I get to experience a life (or in this case, several) that are so radically different from my own. It’s important to let literature open us up in this way – to open our eyes and our hearts to new experiences and new worlds.

And I want to thank Yaa Gyasi for doing just that.

The 100 Year Miracle by Ashley Ream – Review & Playlist

The 100 Year Miracle by Ashley Ream book review tea Muse Monthly bookworm subscription box
It is, primarily, a story of hubris.

The 100 Year Miracle begins with Dr. Rachel Bell, a member of a small research team who have set out to study the Artemia lucis, a small sea creature that glows a bright green during it’s mating period, which lasts for five days every 100 years, only around an island off the coast of Washington. Dr. Bell, however, betrays her research team to conduct a study of her own – investigating the mythical painkilling properties of these sea creatures in order to cure her chronic pain from a childhood accident.

The story has a very mystical quality – because of the nature of these sea creatures that anchor the story, the tone is set that we are witness to something strange and delicate, something otherworldly and mythical. And indeed, Dr. Bell’s research about these creatures involves Native American folklore surrounding them, which is what sets her on her quest. According to the stories she’s found, the people native to the island used the Artemia lucis as both painkiller and hallucinogen, and as a way to access the spirit road. It is clear that these creatures are not to be disturbed, however, Rachel’s quest leads her down a destructive path. When she meets Harry, a resident of the island who is also suffering from chronic pain, she begins to unlock the powers of the Artemia lucis despite the negative effects it begins to have on her and those around her.

However, Rachel’s obsession is, on one level, understandable. It’s a very human thing to want the pain to stop, especially if it’s a pain that’s been ailing you for the majority of your life. It’s very human to get greedy with it, to become to single-minded that we fail to see the chaos that is happening on the other side of our blinders. I’m sure that a lot of people with chronic illnesses – especially illnesses that effect who we are as people and take away parts of us that we value – would jump at the chance to find a painkiller that would make it stop, even if that painkiller comes with some pretty intense side effects. It’s a matter of the good outweighing the bad, or rather, it’s a matter of priority.

And maybe Rachel’s ego gets in the way a bit. Maybe she goes overboard, and certainly there are ethical issues involved with her research and the disturbing of the Artemia lucis’ mating season. But would any of us be any different, given the chance? It is so easy to access those darker parts of humanity – the parts that allow us want to play God, to be selfish to the point of destruction. It’s a thin line between ground-breaking discovery and dangerous obsession.

Ream does an incredible job of showing us something mythical being torn apart and analyzed, being overtaken by human egoism and destroyed. It’s important to look at nature in this way – as something not to be disturbed – and to recognize how our human greed can effect the lives around us.

Perfect Days by Raphael Montes – Review & Playlist

Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Muse Monthly May

I think it’s a sign of a good crime novel that the story makes you very, very, intensely uncomfortable.

I will admit that crime and suspense is not my area of expertise. There are people – my mother is one – who eat up crime dramas and police procedurals. And of course, there are plenty out there to consume, but for some reason I tend to avoid things that are too Law & Order, as they seem to be all the same.

However, y’all know I cant resist a sociopath.

I love fucked up people doing fucked up things, I love reading stories about the build up before someone snaps, I especially love when said sociopath has intimate medical knowledge and is fascinated by dead bodies. That, to me, is setting up for an incredible story that will keep me on the edge of my seat. I am the person who cheers for the bad guy.

And Teo is all those things – he begins by saying his best friend is the cadaver they practice on in medical school, that he feels isolated from his peers until he meets Clarice. Of course, like any person who is unfamiliar with, well, people, Teo misconstrues Clarice’s flirtations and becomes obsessed with her to the point of kidnapping her with the intention of making her fall in love with him. Now, I’ll point out that for the first maybe third of the novel, I am all for this. I want to see Teo go crazy, I want to see him keep Clarice drugged and tied to the bed, I am all for him telling people that they’re dating, they’re engaged, I am all for him lying to both of their mothers and digging himself into a deep, chaotic hole that he’ll never be able to get out of. I just can’t wait for all of the madness to unfold, you know?

But I slowly stopped cheering for Teo and cheering for madness. I began to get panicked, to be worried for Clarice and wishing for someone to come along and save her, or better yet, for her to find her own way out somehow. And this is due to Montes’ masterful writing. Slowly Teo becomes more and more despicable, even for me. Slowly we start to see the depths of his depravity and the extent of his misogyny and homophobia, which transforms from slightly cringeworthy to throw-the-book-out-the-window very quickly. Frequently Teo comments on how disgusting Clarice is for wanting to kiss girls, how she is better at cleaning because she’s a woman, he calls her his ‘Lolita’ (which is a huge red flag), and it gets to the point where you can’t wait for this motherfucker to meet his end.

And…well, you’ll get there.

But the truth is, Perfect Days defied all my expectations. Not only was it expertly written and deliciously creepy, but the twists and turns are expertly navigated to tear up your emotions.

Just make sure no one is in the way when you throw the book across the room.

 

Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue – Review & Playlist

Perfect Days by Alvaro Enrigue Riverhead books book review Muse Monthly

It’s like getting drunk with your Art History teacher.

Which, for me, is pretty much exactly what I want in life. You can’t deny that it would be amazing to split a bottle of wine with your former professor and chat about prostitutes that starred in your favorite paintings, corrupted popes, and the secrets of Spanish conquistadors. And then by the end of it, you’re shitfaced and thinking, ‘wait, is this all true?’ This is essentially the experience of reading Sudden Death – and it is quite the experience.

The novel is multi-layered: first, a story of a tennis match between Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo and famed artist Caravaggio (who is my absolute all time favorite, just as a side note) intersperced with the history of tennis as a developing sport; second, an intensely realistic and human history lesson spanning from Italy to Mexico; third, Enrigue’s email’s back and forth with his editor during the writing of this novel. What Enrigue does brilliantly with Sudden Death is blur the line between reality and fiction – you could, if you were that type of reader, read this along with a history textbook or your google search open, and fact check the shit outta this, but I don’t think you really need to. Did de Quevedo vs. Caravaggio really happen? Did Galileo keep score? Does it really matter?

What Enrigue has done is create a novel that reads more like a Samuel Beckett play, that creates this hyper-reality in which things are just a little bit weird and unbelievable, but not too much that the reader is aware of it. He breathes life into these historical names that we typically feel so far away from – and it’s a real, gritty, dirty life, tangible humanity, with all the bumps and brusies and vomit and sex that you could possibly want. At some points, you may ask yourself, ‘why is this so engrossing?’ The answer is, because it’s written with such skill and personality and humor that you can’t help but get caught up in it.

Sudden Death is a really unique novel. It’s an incredible reading experience that cannot be compared to anything else I’ve read before.

And I’m definitely sending a copy to my art history professor so we can grab drinks and talk about Caravaggio.

A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab – Review & Playlist

A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab: Muse Monthly book review Okay, so I have a confession to make. I have developed a huge crush on V. E. Schwab.
Not a joke. It’s a whole thing, and it’s all very high school.

(if you’re reading this V, um….I….uh….hi??)

And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. If the writing is really good,and I mean really really good, I tend to fall in love with the writer a little bit. Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Safran Foer, and earlier, Jack Kerouac and Sylvia Plath (my dead girlfriend). I get posessive and defensive, I will gush about my writer crushes any opportunity I get, and V. E. Schwab has become the name I work into every conversation.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so completely drowned in a story to the point where I lift my eyes up from the pages and am disappointed in the world around me, disappointed to not be in London (which I am every day, frankly, but I’m talking about a very specific floral-scented London here), disappointed in the lack of magic, of pirate ships on the horizon, of the greyness of it all. It is, honestly, heartbreaking to be so consumed by a new fictional world and then to have to like, get off the fucking train and go to work and sit at a desk for eight hours a day, you know? But V got me, she really did. She created a world and characters that I felt such a kinship with (we’ll recall my spot-on cosplay on instagram here, call the casting director now). And you can see, I’m getting sentimental and not doing a proper review, because I fell in love a little bit and that means I can’t form proper thoughts. I have a lot of things I want to talk about and it just feels so overwhelming. Just gimme it. Gimme it all. Kell and his brooding, genderqueer Lila cutting bitches who get in her way, prince/privateer boy kisses (um, can we talk about the heart attack I had over this?), magical tournaments, all that shit. I want it.

And I find it infinitely frustrating that I can’t have it.

And I know I’m not alone in this. There’s a whole generation of readers still angry over a certain letter that was never delivered (ahem). And why are we still angry? Because we all still hold out hope that magic exists – but this is why we read, and why books like A Gathering of Shadows and its predecessor is necessary. It’s an immersive type of magic, a good book. Beautiful words and colourful, full characters are the magic we can cling to, and they is so vital to our survival in this grey world.

And, like, it helps that the writer is real cute.

…….
I’m fine. It’s fine. I’m gonna go hide now.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – Review & Playlist

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I remember being assigned Life of Pi in high school as part of a Contemporary Literature class. At that time, it was a fairly new novel, perhaps only two or three years after publication. I remember thinking how strange it was to be reading a story that was essentially plot-less – for most of the story, it’s just Pi and the tiger stuck in the boat. It wasn’t, as the books I tended to read at that time were, driven by action. It took me until the end of the novel, until after I sat and processed what I’d just read, to realize what the book was really trying to accomplish. It’s a narrative of humanity at its rawest, at the edge of what we all could be – pure, wild, desperate.

In a lot of ways, The High Mountains of Portugal is very similar in that it is an exploration of humanity, but on a much more intimate level. The story is told in three acts – first, with Tomas in 1904, traveling across Portugal in an automobile that he only barely makes out of alive, on a quest to find an obscure religious relic. Second, Dr. Lozora questions spirituality and mortality with an unusual autopsy. Third, Canadian Senator Peter Tovy makes a radical life change in the form of an ape named Odo.

The truth is, this novel is heavily religious. And sometimes that makes me, as a reader, uncomfortable. Religion is a very personal thing, especially at the level that Martel writes about it. But I think in a way, it works for this story. The novel gets very deep and personal, accessing these characters at their most vulnerable. The exploration of spirituality takes various shapes throughout the novel but still speaks to the personality of the subject and their reactions to the world around them. And it is, at times, uncomfortable – but human vulnerability and truth always is. The novel studies humanity under a microscope, making the tiniest details and moments fascinating and moving. When it all comes crashing together, we are brought back out to the big picture – exploring questions of faith, fate and family, of our place in society and in the evolution of the earth. In this way, we noticed how connected everything is, and how the tiniest details and moments can effect the world around us.

This book, like Life of Pi, needs a little processing – it’s definitely one of those “what the fuck did I just read” moments. But at the end of it, I think you’ll come out feeling a little more enlightened.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm: Review & Playlist

IMG_8893

I love me a bad girl.

There is something so appealing about the anti-hero, especially when it’s a female. So
often we see the typical bad boy – leather jacket wearing, cigarette smoking, James
Dean types that steal our hearts. It’s nice to see a bad girl, a girl who shirks the
rules and does what she wants despite society telling her to do just the opposite.

We talk a lot about that pivotal intersection of literature and feminism, the Strong Female Character, quite a bit. We talk about the differences between Elizabeth Bennet and Katniss Everdeen, we talk about the failings of Bella Swan and the successes of Hermione. The Strong Female Character might be an elusive concept. She must be intelligent, self-suffiencient, adventurous, but she must also be feminine, and not strong simply because she’s had stereotypically male traits attributed to her. She must be, in the truest sense of the word, three dimensional – complete in and of herself, without the support or presence of a man.

That is what was so appealing to me about Unbecoming. Unbecoming is an unusual story –  part love story, part coming of age, part heist – that chronicles the (I’m sorry, I don’t know how to get around this:) falling from grace of it’s protagonist. Grace starts as a simple country girl from the wrong side of the tracks and turns into an intelligent and cunning woman all on her own. And while her story runs parallel to that of the men in her life, she never seems to need them – in fact, the story seems to be a progression of her needing them less and less. She loves them and wants them, but at no point do they hold her up. Often they hold her back.

What interests me most about Unbecoming is Grace’s transformation from girl to woman.  At the start, she wants what we as women are often told to want – marriage, a home of her own, etc. etc. But as she grows, she discovers that maybe those aren’t things she needs after all, and through less than savory means, discovers a life of her own. Grace quickly discovers that she life has so much more to offer, and she makes choices based on what thrills her.

Now, whether you agree with Grace’s choices morally is a different matter altogether – but lets be real, if she wasn’t the way she was, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?