Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Over three decades ago, she predicted America’s current tailspin. Now, she’s reconfigured Shakespeare’s The Tempest, setting it inside a prison where magic and revenge frolic. Margaret Atwood is a mischievous goddess.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. New York: Random House Audio, 2016. CD.

Genre: fiction

Summary: Felix Phillips dazzles audiences every year at the Makeshawig Theater Festival, staging experimental and cutting-edge renditions of Shakespeare’s masterworks. But when a trusted colleague ousts him to claim the spotlight, Felix finds himself marooned in a country shack. He teaches chess to his daughter’s ghost and he plots myriad revenge schemes. When a nearby prison needs a new teacher for their inmate literacy program, Felix applies and soon discovers exactly how to exact retribution.

Critique: Margaret Atwood first dazzled me with A Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, that story anticipated the culture clash currently corroding the United States’ notions of democracy from the inside out. The book recently aired as a critically acclaimed series on Hulu. Viewers are warned not to binge watch it.

Hag-Seed is to Handmaid what Emma is Sense and Sensibility. It is lighter and brighter, but still promises Atwood’s signature wickedness and clever twists. The prologue opens in the future, inside the Fletcher Correctional Facility. Told in teleplay format, the text explains what is seen onscreen and heard off screen. The opening scene of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest unfolds, but with some modernized speeches added along with innovative costuming. Then, the power goes out. Voices from the audience express concern.

Outside the screening room, they hear shouting: Jail break!

Then gunfire. Then a voice inside the screening room commands the audience to keep still and quiet.

Electric tension whips the reader to attention in three short pages. Concluding with a cliffhanger, Atwood then backs up and shares how Felix Phillips made his way from lauded artistic director at a major theater festival to literacy instructor at a jail enacting an elaborate revenge plot on his old enemies.

As a villainous good-guy, Felix is truly sympathetic. Not only do we cheer on his plans to get revenge, but also, we adore his definitive skills as a teacher. Scenes in the classroom are among the novel’s most charming assets. For example, Felix allows inmates to swear all they want so long as they use Shakespearean curse-words. He truly inspires his students and transforms them into passionate actors.

Atwood unwinds the play within the novel,all the while echoing the two plot lines. The effect is dazzling, a bit like looking down on a stack of spiral galaxies. Corresponding swirls twist toward the same center. The more Felix’s students explore and understand the play, the more readers can anticipate what is going to happen next. And yet, the events are never predictable. Enough unexpected conflicts and curveballs enter the mix to keep us guessing and stressing. Will Felix’s plot succeed, or will the inmates rebel and exploit the performance to stage an actual jail break? Is the ghost of Felix’s daughter really there and really helping him or is it just a manifestation of his soured and maddened mind? And the ultimate question which the novel prods: is there really such a thing as happy endings?

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The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination

Mad-Scientist-Cvr_091312The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius. John Joseph Adams, Ed. New York: Tor, 2013. MP3.

Genre: Anthology

Summary: A collection of 22 positively witty and wicked short stories from a slew of talented authors including Harry Turtledove, Diana Gabaldon, Carrie Vaughn, and Austin Grossman, to name only a few.

Critique: Throughout the collection, stories explore an intriguing hypothetical to its inevitably surprising conclusion.

What if your girlfriend discovers and breaches your your super-secret underground evil genius laboratory? Do you forgive the violation of your private space and adult autonomy (not to mention countless passwords) or do you seal her up and doom her to a cruel atomic death?

What if you are the success coach and motivational speaker to some of the world’s worst bad guys? You know, the really inept ones who just can’t get their evil sh*t together and make a decent headline? Do you suffer under a crummy 15% commission for those rarely successful heists or do you steal every trick of the trade and turn yourself into the Mother of All Things Evil?

Or, what if you’re the personal assistant to a super evil genius who totally neglects to appreciate all that you do while the superhero’s personal assistant gets flowers on her birthday and regular salary increases? Would you sell out your boss and botch his next evil plan to take over the world?

Count on each story to take a fresh approach to modern villainy. Depend upon your heartstrings getting plucked and your thoughtomaton brain to purr with rumination more than once as tough interpersonal and ethical issues are dealt out and duked over. Most especially, expect to laugh out loud a lot!

For best results: read (or listen) to this book in a crowded public place!