Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

28588073When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.

Eventually he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution, and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?

I feel I should start this review by saying that although I have read The Tempest and seen a production of it, it was a long time ago and my memory of it starting reading Hag-Seed was fuzzy at best.  I did think about reading a summary of the play to remind me of the key points before starting but decided against it, figuring it would be best to go in with as few pre-conceived ideas as possible.  I am sure not knowing the play well that there is lots I have missed but that’s o.k. for me – I will leave it for others to analyse the book in more detail.

This, after all, will be read by lots of people who haven’t ever read / seen The Tempest but as a story in it’s own right.  I wanted to see if they would be able to do this.  The answer, for me, is yes.  You could read this book without knowing the original story and I think you would still enjoy it because it’s well written and cleverly plotted, mirroring the original (as I found out after finishing it, when I read the summary provided at the back of the book) but with a modern twist.

This twist sets it in a prison, reflecting the island prison the play originally creates for it’s characters, a stark backdrop where people get to pretend to be people they are not, at least for a little time.  This could have made it dark, and there are elements that are, but there is also hope and light as the players get to learn what they might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn, and to shape the play to reflect their lives.  There is inspiration in this.  Plus, as Hag-seed has a play within a play – Shakespeare’s Tempest against that of the Burgess Correctional Players – there are layers that need unpicking as you read and lots to discover in the story.

As well as the setting, Atwood gets to play with language, so the coarse speech of the prisoners, the rap music they use in place of a script in places, against the language of Shakespeare (they can only use Shakespearean swear words for example once in class).  This could be jarring but it isn’t, instead it brings the story bang up to date.  And it is quite a story with lots of intrigue and complicated, complex, characters.  I can’t say I liked them, they were all just a little bit (or more than a lot) selfish and out for themselves (not a surprise given that vengeance is a key theme throughout).  Even those that you can be sympathetic towards aren’t completely innocent.

Their behaviour reflects, I feel, something you see in Atwood’s work – a cynicism, about life and society in general, how selfish we can be and how we are pretty much all slaves to capitalism.  Personally, I don’t mind this – though I know it’s not everybody’s cup to tea.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love her work.  It makes me think, makes me question, and ensure I don’t think anything for granted.  It means her books are always easy to read but do I always need easy?  Probably not.

If you like this too, then you’ll like this book.  If you want an interesting story with lots of twists, turns and depth, then you’ll like this book too I think.  Like I said, it might not be for everyone but it was definitely for me and I liked it a lot as a result.  A recommended read!


p.s. I received a copy of this book from blogging for books in return for a fair and honest review.  All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.


Tuesday intro: Hag-seed

imageOnce again I’m linking up again with Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea who hosts a post every Tuesday for people to share the first chapter / paragraph of the book they are reading, or thinking of reading soon. In really enjoy these tasters when I read them on other blogs so wanted to join in.

This week I’m reading Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors and someone whose books I normally love. So far, this is no exception though it’s taken me a while to get into the rhythm. Here’s what it’s about…

28588073When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.

Eventually he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution, and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?

And here’s how it starts…

Monday, January 7, 2013

Felix brushes his teeth. Then he brushes his other teeth, the false ones, and slides them into his mouth. Despite the layer of pink adhesive he’s applied, they don’t fit very well; perhaps his mouth is shrinking. He smiles: the illusion of a smile. Pretense, fakery, but who’s to know?

What do you think? Would you keep reading?


p.s. this is from a review and uncorrected proof copy

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

imageLiving in their car, surviving on tips, SCharmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

So I originally planned on posting this review on Monday.  Then I didn’t.  Why? Because I was struggling with how I felt about the novel and what I had written didn’t feel right – and it didn’t, if I’m honest, feel honest which I always try to be.

My problems started with the fact that I love Margaret Atwood.  I have read the majority of her books and I can (honestly this time) say there isn’t one I haven’t liked and a lot of which I’ve loved. That includes the Maddaddam trilogy which I know not everyone enjoyed and did, I admit, take some getting used to.  Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the first book though, the language and the imagry, I was hooked on the stories of a disparate group of people trying to survive in a world wiped out by man-made plagues and problems.

There are many of the same themes in The Heart Goes Last.  The world hasn’t been wiped out by a virus but it has been hit by the financial collapse and the central characters, Stan and Charmaine are struggling as a result having lost their jobs and home and finding themselves living in a car.  When Charmaine sees an ad for a town of Consilience where she can have a house again, clean sheets, a job in return for living an alternate lifestyle as a prisoner every other month she can’t say no  – and, because he loves her, neither can Stan.  Like his brother tells him though if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

At first, all seems well but slowly the dream becomes a nightmare.  They can’t leave Consilience and they can’t talk to the outside world.  There are people watching all the time and big, black, cars silently cruise the streets.  Big corporations with no moral compass are in charge.  Greed, lust, and power are what they care about, not helping people live better lives as they promised.  Not unless you are rich, of course, and can pay for the organs harvested from prisoners who won’t reform or the baby blood sold to make you young again.

These are all things that were touched on in the Maddaddam books and they are all things that scare me because they feel like they could be real and make me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  The thing with this book though, was that I found I didn’t care.  I didn’t feel scared.  And that’s because I didn’t believe in any of the characters or the world Atwood had created in Consilience and beyond.  I wanted to, I really did, but I didn’t.  Instead, Stan and Charmaine annoyed me. I found them weak and ineffectual.  The other central characters were just as bad, flat and stereotypical.  I really didn’t care if they did have their minds wiped because Ed, the man in charge, felt like it.

Even Atwood’s language, which I normally find paints a picture for me, let me down.  It felt like she was going through the motions before beating me over the head with her message in the final pages – just in case I hadn’t understood.  This was originally a series of magazine articles I think or short stories, and maybe that was the problem.  Maybe if I’d read them as that I’d feel differently.  But, unfortunately, I don’t – which means (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) this wasn’t one for me.  Sorry!



Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

8456717Too Much Happiness is a collection of short stories written by Alice Munro in 2009. I know short stories aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (there was an interesting discussion about them recently on The Socratic Salon) but I really enjoy them – when they are done well, and these were.

Alice Munro has a way of drawing me in from pretty much the first sentence and painting pictures of people and places that feel very real to me. I was amazed throughout this book just how quickly I became involved in the stories and attached to the characters.

There are 10 stories in this collection and all but one, Too Much Happiness, are set in Canada sometime in the past (between the late 40s and 70s I think). And all, bar one, are pure fiction as far as I can tell. Too Much Happiness is the one that isn’t.  Instead, it is based on the last days of Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky.

This is the longest of the stories too. When I started it, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying it and it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what I’d been reading. In retrospect, though, it is one of the ones that has stayed with me most and it does follow the same themes of women trying to make their way in a world they seem slightly out of sync with. They are looking for their place in it, often after an important life event, and their expectations of themselves and others seem to change as they get older.

The other story I couldn’t let go of was Child’s Play, a tale of childhood cruelty and how this can be hard to let go of. There is a twist in the tail of this one that made me stop for more than a second.  This story is about 30 pages, as are the rest, making them easy to fit in and read in bursts. As well as childhood, the stories deal with domestic abuse, infidelity, ruined friendships, mothers and sons, bereavement, and love. None are easy subjects and some are pretty uncomfortable reading. All are handled well, even the most disturbing, though – making me think back through my own life and ask questions of the world around me. They are all well worth a read. Highly recommended!


Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro


The first thing that struck me about Lives of Girls and Women was that, despite being described as a novel, it is more a collection of short stories, each written from the perspective of one central character, Del Jordan. Each chapter is a story and each story a snapshot of Del’s life as she moves from child to teenager to young woman.

The second thing was that, despite having been written in 1971, this book felt very fresh and modern; the issues it touchs on – around what it’s like to grow up female and the perceptions of what women should and shouldn’t be – still seem as relevant now as they were in the 70’s when the book was written or the 40’s when it was set.

The book opens with Del as a child, living with her family on the their fox farm at the end of a long country road in rural Ontario, a road that is otherwise home to some less than salubrious types.  The first story isn’t so much about her, though, as it is her Uncle (who isn’t an uncle) and his sudden and unfortunate marriage to a young woman who already has a little girl.

Del see’s things from the perspective of a child and just how much she doesn’t understand is evident in her description of events.  As a child, she takes things at face value and accepts what adults tell her. With each story, as she gets a little older, she starts to see things more as they are and question those around her. She also continues to misunderstand a lot of things and make mistakes. That though, is growing up, and Del’s behaviour felt real to me and age appropriate – I liked that she wasn’t written as wiser than her years.

Told in the first person, you get to see how Del changes and becomes her own person and how she relates to and is shaped by the two most important people in her life, her mother and her best friend Naomi. Both are almost polar opposites of each other. Naomi is a traditional girl, growing up with local prejudices and wanting nothing more than to fill her hope chest and get married. Her mother wants more for herself and for Del than being a wife and mother. She goes to live in the town, leaving her husband on the farm, and earns her own money by travelling the country selling encyclopaedias.

All three women feature prominently in each story and this a very female centric book. The first story is the only one where men are at the centre of the narrative. In all the others they are there as caricatures almost, representing certain character traits or attitudes, none of which are particularly attractive. The men come across as weak, sneaky or controlling. Even Del’s father and brother, who appear in every story, are never front and centre but floating around in the background.

The mother is an interesting character. The result of an unhappy childhood she is now an unhappy adult who feels that life should be more than it is.  In each story, you see her trying to make more of herself, and her children, especially Del who she believes can achieve great things.  To me, she is a woman living in the wrong time and I had a lot of sympathy for her when her attempts to change her life didn’t always go to plan. I also admired her for standing up for her beliefs.

Del has a love / hate relationship with her mom. At times she seems to understand her but most times she is slightly embarassed. Yet, to me, she was her mother’s daughter in many ways, not quite fitting into the small town of Jubilee and wanting more from life. In many of the stories she is searching for answers – on friendships, love, sex, and religion. All things I think most people wonder and worry about at some point and I could see the teenage me in Del at times.

I like that Alice Munro doesn’t over sentimentalise any of the issues or the answers. In places, the book actually felt more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. The way it is written seems so straightforward but, when I sat and thought about what I’d read, it was much more complex and layered. This made it a book I really enjoyed reading, with characters I related too, and a book that I think will stay with me for a while yet. I will definitely be reading more Alice Munro.

Highly recommended!


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Title: Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction

Source: Library

Rating: Loved it (5 out of 5)


I don’t quite remember when or where I first started reading about Station Eleven, although it was sometime late last year. What I do remember is how good everyone said it was. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve read one bad review yet. And this one isn’t going to buck the trend because I loved it.

It opens with a famous actor, Arthur Leader, collapsing on stage whilst playing King Lear and the attempts of trainee Paramedic Jeevan to save him. Walking home through a snowy Toronto later that night, Javeen realises that, after more than one failed attempt, he has finally chosen the right career.  It is the same night that a flu pandemic arrives in Canada, and begins to sweep across continents, leaving few survivors.

Fifteen years later, Arthur is nothing more than a memory for the (no longer) child actress, Kirsten, who performed with him in King Lear that night. But those memories are some of the few she has of the world before. Unlike King Lear. Shakespeare  is still very much part of her present as she is a member of a troop of travelling actors and musicians who peform for some of the last remaining outposts dotted around the Great Lakes.

They have been travelling a long time and, for the most part, things have gone well.  After 15 years the world has settled into a rhythm and, whilst maybe not completely safe, isn’t as dangerous as it was after the flu first hit. That is until they arrive in a town under the control of a Prophet. His future wife (who happens to be 12) stows away with them to avoid getting married and they all end up in danger.

That said, this isn’t a violent story, and this was one of the things I liked about it. So many post-apocalyptic novels are full of violence. Everyone is out for themselves and their worlds are grey and dark. Station Eleven isn’t like that. No, it’s not the world it was but, in some ways, that doesn’t seem so bad.  There is the part where life is simpler and people have found what is important to them. For Kirsten, it’s acting. For Javeen, it’s medicine. People may not have a lot, but for the most part they are satisfied.

Satisfaction is something Arthur Leader never felt and, although he doesn’t make it through the first chapter, he is very much a presence in the book, with his story being told at the same time as Kirsten’s – because the fact that they appeared on the same stage isn’t the only link between them or between the past and the present.  How those links play out is really interesting and kept me reading and guessing.

Beyond Arthur, Kirstin, and Jeevan, there are also stories for Arthur’s ex-wives, his son, his best friend, and the members of the Travelling Symphony. That’s a lot of people to keep track of but I had no problem keeping up with the multiple story and time lines thanks to the writing style, which meant there was a nice flow between the then and now.

As each character’s story unfolded I found myself caring about each of them, even Arthur, and felt sad when their lives didn’t quite turn out as they’d hoped, happy when despite everything they found a sense of peace. This goes back to this being a different type of post-apocalyptic world than I’ve normally read about and one of the main reasons I liked the book. In the end, it might not have been a happy ending in the traditional sense of the word but it was a positive one and I was left feeling a sense of hope for everyone left behind.  Now I am keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel!

Have you read it – what did you think?


Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

Title: Stone Mattress
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: General Fiction, Short Stories
Source: Library
Rating: Loved it (5 out of 5)


Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories, or tales as Margaret Atwood prefers to call them. The first three, Alphinland, Revenat, and Dark Lady are linked, telling the tales of a girlfriend, a boyfriend and his mistress (though as they take place in bohemian Toronto in the ’60’s lovers is maybe a better description of their relationships). Now, it is many years later. They are all a lot older, a lot greyer, and all still living with the impact of one man’s infidelity.

The rest of the tales cover freaks of nature (Lucus Naturae), murder (The Freeze Dried Groom), misunderstandings (The Dead Hand Loves You), revenge (Stone Mattress), and the rage of youth and ineffectualness of age (Torching the Dusties). This is probably all too simple a rounding up as each tales has plenty of layers and complexity and many touch on anger, resentment, sexuality – and sexual violence.

My favourite tale was I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth because it revisits characters from one of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels, The Robber Bride. This time, Zenia might actually be doing the right thing and reading this tale felt like spending time with old (if slightly dysfunctional) friends. The tale is one of three that have been previously published- the rest, I believe, are new.

In her acknowledgments, Margaret Atwood says she has chosen to call these tales to remove them “from the realm of the mundane” and “evoke the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and long ago teller tales”. This idea fits perfectly with what I read because each story is outside the ordinary, sometimes fantasy, and a little bit twisted. All are pure Atwood – and so right up my street. Already a fan of the author, this book cemented that. Loved it!

Emma x

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Title: MaddAddam
Author: Margaret Atwood
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy (Book 3)
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I know they say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but the book jacket for Margaret Attwood’s MaddAddam is my favourite of the year. As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t wait to start reading. The fact that I am a big Margaret Attwood fan, might have had something to do with this and that I enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy (Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood).


MaddAddam is the story of some of the last remaining humans and the Crakers, scientifically spliced creatures who look like people but with a twist (including eyes that are luminous). They do not eat meat, do not know hate, or fear. Named after their creator Crake, he made them to inherit the earth after he destroyed mankind through a virus and what became known as the Waterless Flood. Whether I can feel too sorry for most of mankind I’m not sure. In Attwood’s world most are greedy and corrupt or too broken to care; they are happy to feast on genetically modified food and bleed the world dry of its resources rather than try and change. Society is run by large corporations who use science not to the betterment of people but to their cost.

“The people in the chaos cannot learn. They cannot understand what they are doing to the sea and the sky and the plants and the animals. They cannot understand that they are killing them, and that they will end by killing themselves. And there are so many of them, and each one of them is doing part of the killing, whether they know it or not. And when”

Some did try to change things, the Gods Gardeners were one group, and their remaining members are some of the central characters in the novel – Toby, Zeb, Ren, and Amanda. Then there is Jimmy, former best friend of Crake and unlikely prophet to the Crakers (as long as he wears a baseball hat and sunglasses with one lens). All of them have survived through a combination of luck, skill and perseverance and we are told their stories in the first two novels (other than Zebs, which is told here). Now, they are living in a compound, along with the Crakers, at risk from paintballers and pigoons and trying to survive.

The future it presents is scary, one I don’t particularly want to see but then think might be possible when I read news stories about the government contracting out all its work and countries modifying their food in order to feed their populations. And that’s even before you add in global warming. One of the things I like about Margaret Attwood is I always end up thinking about what I’m reading and MaddAddam, along with the other books in the trilogy, made me realise how little I know about environmental issues and how potentially dangerous that is. I’m a bit like the general human race before the flood, blindly walking into a future where the planet can’t sustain us.

The other things I love are the complexity – her books don’t tell simple stories in a simple way – and the language, the way she presents people and ideas (“Perfection exacts a price, but it’s the imperfect who pay it”) at the same time as sometimes just stating the obvious and it makes me laugh (“The best way of being kind to bears is not to be very close to them.” ). I also like that she is a brave storyteller, she really seems to tell the story she wants, the way she wants to. There is an attitude in her novels that I love and there isn’t always a happy ending.

Given all that, and my comments at the beginning of the post, it’s probably obvious to say I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but possibly with the caveat that you read the other books first (there is a summary at the start but I still found myself stopping at times to try to figure out who someone was or when something had happened.)

Note: I actually wrote this review for my previous blog but decided to re-post it here after my current read, J. By Howard Jacobson, also set in a future I wouldn’t want to inhabit, brought it to mind