by Margaret Atwood
Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge. After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, retribution, and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.
I love Margaret Atwood and have read nearly everything she’s written. She’s experiencing a renaissance now because of the Hulu award-winning TV series based on her 1986 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.If you’ve wondered way some women have been showing up in full-length red gowns and white bonnets to protest legislation limiting a women’s right choose or other restrictive laws—this book/show is why. If you haven’t read the book—you should. But I digress…
Hag Seed (a reference to the “monster” Caliban) did not disappoint. The publisher, Hogarth Books, is putting out a series of novels by famous authors retelling Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve read two others in the series and this one is my favorite—so far. Atwood drew “The Tempest” and gave us a workman-like effort with touches of whimsy. She employs the “play within a play” trope where the main character Felix/Prospero is teaching and directing “The Tempest” in a prison literacy program, while simultaneously living out the plot of the play. (more…)
by Octavia Butler
“Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.”
Originally published in 1979, Kindred is a brilliant exploration of “the peculiar institution” of slavery. In this historical fantasy, Dana, a twentieth century black woman, is ripped from her time and deposited on a 1820’s Maryland plantation to save a young white boy named Rufus from drowning. When threatened by the boy’s father, she snaps back to her own time, wet and muddy from the river, to the astonishment of her husband who saw her disappear before his eyes only seconds before. This is the first in a series of time displacements that occur whenever Rufus is threatened by death and snaps her back when her own life is threatened. The time elapsed includes only a few months of Dana’s modern time, but years in her life with Rufus (as a boy and later as a young man) and the slaves on his plantation. (more…)
The Confessions of Young Nero
by Margaret George
“While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire…Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary. With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.”
Because Nero is a minor character in one of my books (Sword of the Gladiatrix) and plays a more impactful role in the upcoming sequel (Song of the Gladiatrix), I was curious to see how George would handle this fascinating and controversial figure. The Confessions of Young Nero is set in the period considered by some historians to be Nero’s “sane” period (even though it included his infamous murder of his mother). His early life, especially under the influence of the philosopher Seneca and other older mentors, showed much promise. As he grew older and more independent, his choice of companions grew more reckless and his actions less excusable. (more…)
by Gordon Linzner
“Imprisoned for thousands of years in the hilt of a ceremonial sword, the oni, a hideous Japanese demon, is accidentally released to wreak the havoc of its pent-up fury on an unsuspecting world. All-powerful, immortal, and possessed of an unquenchable lust for human blood, the demon seems invincible, leaving in its wake an increasing number of horribly mutilated bodies.
Only one woman has learned the oni’s history and the key to its destruction. But will she be able to pit her puny human strength against the demon’s murderous powers before she becomes yet another victim?”
It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a horror story—although that’s how I started my writing career. The Oni is just the kind of horror story I enjoy: gritty realism meets ancient evil—The Mummy kind of story. There are tons of setting and period details in both the modern and ancient Japan strands of the story, interesting and diverse characters, and a truly terrifying monster. Linzner writes this horror/fantasy like a tight police procedural: not a lot of fancy language, but with plenty of nail-biting tension and character insight. There are even some lighter moments as the evil oni tries to apply his ancient cultural biases to 1982 Manhattan. (more…)
The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna
by C.W. Gortner
Blurb: “Narrated by the mother of Russia’s last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia’s most compelling women, who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in its final years…From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.
C. W. Gortner has hit another one out of the park with his newest historical novel The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. The book ranges over half a century from the eve of the protagonist’s sister’s wedding to the heir to the British throne (1863) to her dramatic escape from civil war-torn Russia (1919) aboard a British battleship. Gortner takes us on a heart-rending journey through the life of the woman born Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar (“Minnie”) of Denmark. She took the name Maria Feodorovna when she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, married the heir to the Russian throne Alexander II and became the mother of the last Tsar of Russia Nicholas II. Minnie is an appealing character and much less known than her daughter-in-law Empress Alexandra. My only acquaintance with her was as the white-haired aristocratic grandmother in the animated Disney film Anastasia. (more…)
by Gore Vidal
Vidal is a master of his craft. This novel starts from the point of view of Charles Schuyler, a young law clerk working in the law office of an aged Aaron Burr. His employer inexplicably invites him on a mysterious carriage ride which ends in Burr’s wedding to a notorious rich widow. Schuyler, who prefers journalism to the law, writes an article about the wedding for a local newspaper–which gets rejected. But the editor, who is deep into New York and national politics, has an offer the penniless young man can’t refuse: a lucrative contract to write an anonymous pamphlet accusing Martin Van Buren (current vice-president and future presidential candidate) of being Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son which could hand the presidency to the likely contender Henry Clay. Schuyler just has to come up with some “proof” which, in those times before DNA testing, was pretty thin. This sets up the story in which young Schuyler struggles with his conscience over hurting a man he admires and helping a man, whose politics he abhors, win an election. (more…)