Book Reviews: Commonwealth and Hag-Seed

I’ve almost completed my reading list for January! If you haven’t checked that list out, it’s posted here.

The only book I have left to read is All the Light We Cannot See, which I’m very excited to finally read.

I’ve decided that I’m going to post at least 2 book reviews each month, and I plan on reviewing books I have the most to talk about. I LOVED The Bronze Horseman (a historical fiction that takes place in Soviet Russia), and I may do a short blurb on it, but I’ve decided to focus on these two books instead.

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

4.5/5 stars

This is a contemporary novel that debuted in September 2016. The novel spans five decades, following the intertwined lives of two families, brought together by an affair, a separation, and several remarriages.

What most intrigued me while I was reading this novel, was how the various connections between the siblings and step-siblings played out throughout the years. The step-siblings only ever spend a handful of summers together, but their actions and relationships have a lasting effect on everyone around them. Caroline and Franny Keating are sisters, the daughters of Fix and Beverly Keating. Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie Cousins are the children of Bert and Teresa Cousins. When Bert and Beverly begin and affair and then marry for several years, the six children become family, until that marriage dissolves as well.

There is an especially poignant moment towards the end of the novel, when Franny Keating cares for Teresa Cousins, in her old age. What an interesting coupling–Teresa is the mother of Franny’s ex-stepsiblings. Teresa and Franny had only ever seen each other once, at a funeral decades ago. The two are basically strangers, but Franny spends Teresa’s final moments with her, and when a nurse asks about their relationship, Franny calls Teresa her step-mother, even though there is no name for what Teresa really is to her. But Teresa is the mother to people Franny loves and sees as brothers and sisters and that’s enough to deeply connect two strangers.

The story is a nonlinear one. Each chapter dances between decades as Patchett slowly reveals more and more about the sibling’s lives. We learn that while in her twenties, Franny dates a famous novelist who writes a book based on the lives of her and her extended family. This fills her with regret, because she has given away a deeply personal story that may not be hers to tell, one that focuses on her ex-stepsiblings and once the story is out there is a struggle and an examination on the ownership of stories and memory.

“All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for. All”

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Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

4/5 stars

The Tempest by William Shakespeare tells a tale of magic, fantasy, desire and revenge. Hag-Seed is such a layered retelling of the tempest, it is a play within a play. The book itself parallels The Tempest: Our main character, Felix is cunningly wronged and deposed of by a power-seeking individual. He is ousted as the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival after a praised career. His wife and daughter have both tragically died, and at that moment he is betrayed by his protege who stages a coup and has Felix fired and physically removed from the theater. Felix than completely disappears from the world and spends years living in a shack, growing mad all whilst planning and obsessing over his growing plot for revenge. His daughter, Miranda, has now been dead for 12 years, but she grows up with him in that shack, and ever more real ghost he resurrects as his companion.

A decade into his obsession on revenge, he creates a new identity and gains a job as a teacher at a correctional facility. Years go by as he teaches the Literacy Through Theater class, until the time comes for him to produce The Tempest and enact his revenge. The reader gets to see the production The Tempest and the progression of Felix’s madness.

Hag-Seed is a fun read. It is dark and dramatic, and it pulls you in to Felix’s plot. You both understand him and hope for him, but you also understand that he cannot sustain this life he has carved out for himself, that Miranda cannot be tethered to him forever. I also found the chapter length to be a great set-up. Most chapters are only three pages long which allowed for quick reading and I felt it really fit the feel of the book (it made it more play-like). I would really recommend this to both fans of The Tempest and people who were never able to get into Shakespeare, because this is a really accessible way to jump in.

Book Review: Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

4.5/5 stars

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a beautiful and powerful writer. He currently writes for the Atlantic and you should go check out some of the articles he’s written, and then read this collection of essays. Between the World and Me is written as a letter to Coates’ son, a study on race relations in America and how racism oppresses and terrorizes black bodies. Coates dives into personal and national history to examine and explain the way systems in the United States work as machines that maintain the status quo of assault and violation of black people.

A lot of the criticism of this book has been “This is too dark, there is no hope in Coates’ words,” and these critics are correct in the describing the bleakness that Coates paints. I was listening to Another Round, a Buzzfeed podcast, in which Coates guest starred in. He explained that as a black writer, people expect him to speak for all of his people. He’s expected to inspire and enlighten and bring about change. As a black writer, he is not afforded the same liberties as Fitzgerald, who was able to paint a picture of excess and social failings. I think that this is an apt analysis of the criticism against Coates. Coates looks at his life and he looks at the history of black oppression and he writes what he sees. He’s not here to lead us into the light.

I’m going to include some quotes that I found particularly moving, and that made me really think about oppression in a new light.

This first quote appears toward the beginning of the book. Coates breaks down how our belief in race is a tool in the hand of racism.

“Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism–the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them–inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores and earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

But race is the child of racism, not the father.”

The second quote I’m going to include is one that features the American school system, which plays a prominent part in this book. Coates is very critical of schooling. To him, schools are where the power imbalance is maintained. You either do well in school, or the streets will claim you and you will end up dead or in jail. Or you will adapt and excel in school and you will be taught to exist and work within systems of oppression. Coates calls the classroom a “jail of other people’s interests.”

“But a society that protects some through the safety nets of schools, government-backed homes, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.”

That something darker is something that Coates really dives into, and it is something that pushed me to think harder about these issues. He talks about the Dream, the white man in power and how if there is a mountain of power there must be people left down below in its shadow. Which is all to say that racism exists because people allow it, because people enjoy the benefits they are allotted because of it.

“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”

 

Book Review: Ms. Marvel 2–4

Ms. Marvel: Generation Why

5/5 stars

I have never read a Marvel comic before starting Ms. Marvel. So. I’m a newbie to this world and medium. I’m continuing to love this series. The second book was really my intro into superhero dynamics and it was a lot of fun. I will be talking about which characters appear in this series but I will avoid other plot spoilers, but if you don’t want to know what other super heroes pop up, don’t keep reading, because SPOILERS:

Okay. So Wolverine and Captain America and Medusa. Exciting stuff. I’m a huge fan of the X-Men films (despite how much they suck at times) and so seeing Wolverine pop up in the second Marvel comic I read was a blast. Also, the comic was really fun because it was Kamala’s origin story. We get to see why she developed superheroes and I love that mythology stuff. Understandably, Kamala isn’t able to absorb a ton of knowledge about her past, so we have that fun dangling hope of more info into her origins to come at a later time.

It was also nice to see Kamala deal with an important aspects of being a hero–dealing with people who don’t want to be saved and learning relying on others. Spoiler: the fact that she turns a crew of would-be teenage victims into a group she relies on is gold.

Ms. Marvel: Crushed

5/5 stars

Ms. Marvel: Last Days

4/5 stars

I’ve decided that I like reading comics. I started reading graphic novels about a year ago and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them so I figured, why not branch out even further? I didn’t go into a review for the last two because, to be honest, I ran out of time. I’m already two books ahead of this review, and wanted to get this up. I will say that the final comic was good, but my least favorite because it felt like so little got discussed and I wanted more of an ending

So, does anyone have any recommendations for me comic-wise? I love kick-ass female characters, so let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Ms. Marvel — No Normal

I took a break from reading from my list today and spent a few hours in my local library. I couldn’t help but pick up the Ms. Marvel series.

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Ms. Marvel written by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by: Adrian Alphona

5/5 stars

No regrets. I am in love with Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel and protagonist of this comic. It only took me reading the first two pages to know that I was a goner. Quickly, we learn that Kamala and her family are Muslim. Kamala exists in a weird space; she is an American teenager, a nerdy fan girl who wrote a freakin’ Avengers fanfic, but her peers see her family and her skin and her “strange” food rules and they mark her as other.

The fact that Kamala is an outsider to both her Pakistani family and her American peers makes her crave normalcy. So when Captain Marvel seemingly grants Kamala what she wants, to be able to look like whomever Kamala desires, it’s perfect symbol of Kamala’s desires and the issues that go with them. First, she appears as a blonde, white attractive copy of Captain America. Spoiler: But by the end we have our brown skinned Muslim superhero.

Kamala’s father is a really great, nuanced character. He is Muslim but not as strictly religious as his own son. He doesn’t like that his son’s religion gets in the way of him being productive and finding a job. At the same time, he is really controlling of Kamala and does not allow her much freedom because she is a girl. He tells Kamala that she is “perfect just the way she is” but this rings false because he is so preoccupied with maintaining her chastity that he can’t possibly see her as a person.

I have an other hour off of work right now and I’m gonna power through the next installment. I will post a review by Wednesday of the remaining three. This installment got me really excited about Ms. Marvel and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne

2/5 stars

I did not plan on reading this any time soon. As you may know, it was not on my scheduled Summer Reading List and all the negative and positive hype around the play had me worried and ready to wait until the noise had died down. But. It is Harry Potter and the idea of new information on these fictional characters I love so much was powerful and I found myself a hundred pages in the night of the book’s release.

This is a hard review to write. I loved reading the play, because of the excitement of learning more about Harry, Hermione, Ron, and co. But, the play was not good and that was really sad.

Part of me thinks that this story was doomed from inception, that it would inevitably read as fan fiction, and possibly bad fan fiction. I mean, first we have a new writer (which is pretty much the definition of fan fic). Second, we have a new medium. I love plays. I love seeing plays and I also enjoy reading them. But Harry Potter has never been written as a play before and the way the play was written (visions of the past, clips of old moments, time travel and rewriting previous scenes), coupled with the fact that as a play, we lost a narrative voice and an insight into the story that goes past character’s lines and brief actions, lead to me feeling as if this play was the most basic form of gratuitous fan fiction coupled with a bad storyline.

Spoilers will follow:

I love Severus Snape for his flaws and his sacrifice and Cedric Diggory for his bravery. I love James and Lily Potter for their love and perpetual youth. That being said, the time travel in this play felt like a cheap plot device used so that the fans could see their fan favorites again and this smorgasbord of pandering would have been so much better off it had instead focused on developing new characters, enriching old characters, and remaining routed in the present and the issues that the son of Harry Potter.

The characters were also something I had an issue with. Ginny has basically no personality. We’re told that she’s a mother and a wife and she worries about Albus. Hermione has lost her depth. Ron is a caricature of his movie-self (and this play is so focused on best friend brotherhood, so where is the depth to Ron and Harry’s friendship?). And I’m sorry, but I do not believe this characterization of Harry Potter as a father who has failed his son. Harry Potter was an outcast and even when he had a hero’s life and responsibilities thrust upon him, he was an outsider with the weight of the world on his shoulder. I do not believe that he would have not put a 100% into developing relationships with his children, especially when Albus was viewed as the outsider of his family. All Harry wanted was a family and to belong, and I cannot believe in a Harry who would not understand Albus’ pain (the fact that Harry recognizes this at the end of Albus’ school days is too damn late for me to believe). Dumbledore breaking down in tears as a portrait was also a strange thing for me to picture.

I’m going to have trouble viewing this storyline as canon. I guess because of all the time rewriting, I just have to know that: Super Spoilers: Harry’s second son was different, a Slytherin, and he had a bad relationship with Harry up until his last few years of school, and that Bellatrix had sex with Voldemort (What?!) and their daughter is now locked up. Also, Albus is besties with Draco’s nice son. The rest I’m going to just let fade away. Except for Snape. It was fan junk but Snape allowing himself to not exist again in order to right his mistakes was the only part I loved.

Book Review: When We Collided

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When We Collided by Emery Lord

2.5/5

First of all, let me just say: I have read three books in five days and it’s such a rush! I read this one in one day, a sci-fi book the day before, and a graphic novel today. I also started reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore this morning and if I finish it on Monday, I may throw a party.

Okay, on to reviewing this book. The 2.5 stars means I was stuck between “it was okay” and “I liked it.” That pretty much sums up my opinion. I went into reading this book knowing that it would be a quick, light-hearted summer read. And it was, kind of. The story switches perspectives between Vivi and Noah, two high schoolers who have had their share of tragedy. It’s set in a fictional California beach town, Verona Cove. Vivi is there vacationing with her artist mother and Jonah is struggling under the weight of caring for his younger siblings after his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent depression.

Parts of the book that I liked: Love was not this all-consuming, soulmate thing. We love and we move on and we love again. Great stuff. Also, I found the beginning of Viv’s mental breakdown to be very realistic.

I just don’t know. Also, there were a lot of one-dimensional characters that I wished were more defined. The male protagonist, Jonah Daniels’ whole family were really interesting but we never got to know more about them besides one character trait each and that they were sad over their father’s death. Another issue was the set-up of plot-points. There is a point early on in the novel when Ivi purchases a type of motorcycle and you just know what’s going to happen, and of course, it does.

I guess this is my final thought: Vivi suffers from mental illness. (Spoiler alert because I don’t think the reader is meant to know one of these going in) Vivi has depression and is bipolar. And her not taking her medications starts her on a downward spiral and she is unkind to the people who love her. It is real and ugly and for the most part, Lord writes Vivi’s frantic actions and words and increasingly disconnected inner dialogue really well. But the overall presentation of the romance and the neat ending do not fit with the story of issues of mental health, and that’s what left me feeling less than thrilled with the book.

Book Review: Hot Dog Taste Test

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Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt

Rating: 5/5 stars

Guys, read this graphic novel. I kid you not. Even if you’ve never read a graphic novel before. Especially if you’ve never read a graphic novel before. This book is funny, weird, completely over-the-top and filled with some real depth. Hanawalt focuses in on foodie culture (deconstructed food, perfectly edited Instagram shots of fancy breakfast foods) and our relationship to food (filling your shopping cart with healthy foods and wondering if people assume you’re super healthy and put together, a food diary that keeps track of how many chocolate-covered almonds you consume in a day). It’s freakin’ great social commentary that never feels preachy, only cutting and hilarious.

I’m going to include a few excerpt here so that you can get a feel for the book without me spoiling a bunch of great stuff. Check it out:

I received Hot Dog Taste Test in my monthly Landfall Freight subscription box, but you can get it over on Amazon. Please let me know if you read it because I don’t know anyone else who has!