“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

-Goodreads


This was a book that had been on my radar for a while, and I finally put myself on the wait list for it at my library. It was well worth the wait!

The facts of William Shakespeare’s son’s death are not known. The author, having dug up what little info she could find, started ruminating on a thought she had… Shakespeare lived during the time of the plague, yet never mentioned it in his plays. (It had to affect him, at least in the professional sense, as theatres would sometimes have to close when outbreaks were high.) So, she contemplated.. what if he avoided the topic because it was too personal?

From this one thought, and the other scant information she found on his wife and family, she built a whole novel.

While we are introduced to Hamnet and his siblings right away, the real focus of the book is Agnes (William’s wife and Hamnet’s mother). The story shifts between two eras of Agnes’ life – the time of Hamnet’s sickness and dying, and the one of her meeting and marrying her husband.

Agnes came from a farm family, and was adept at making medicinal concoctions from herbs and plants. While many sought out her help, there were also some who thought she was extremely odd (maybe even a witch?).

Because she is so often called on to help others cure their ills, it crushes her even more that she could not save her own son. We sit through her mourning and contemplations, both during his death and burial and in the years after. There is so much sadness, as the reader is going through this from Agnes’ perspective. In the time after, it is obvious to a modern reader that Agnes is dealing with severe depression. In her own time, some of her family members grow tired of her inability to move on.

William and Agnes basically lead separate lives, with him in London or touring with his players and her raising the kids in Stratford. His parents make their home feel unsafe and claustrophobic for him, which is part of why he wanted to leave. Eventually, when he is making good money, he buys her a house away from his parents. Thankfully, she can rely on her oldest brother to have a level head. He is always willing to help her, and William sometimes goes through the brother to get to Agnes when she is being distant.

In the last section of the book, her brother actually goes with Agnes to London to confront William about writing a play with their dead son’s name in it – Hamlet. This is her first time seeing London, and his work.

This is a sad and beautiful story. Read it if you’re in the mood to be faced with big feelings.


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“The Guncle” by Steven Rowley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is honestly a bit out of his league… when tragedy strikes, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Quickly realizing that parenting—even if temporary—isn’t solved with treats and jokes, Patrick’s eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you’re unfailingly human.

Goodreads


This is the third novel by Steven Rowley, and it came out this spring. His first, “Lily and the Octopus,” had me bawling in my car at the end. (Hint: it’s great on audio, but maybe not while driving a car.) After that, I considered myself a dedicated fan.

This one did not disappoint. Patrick is a former TV star who has been out of the limelight – and LA – for a handful of years now. He’s suddenly thrust into the role of caretaker for his niece and nephew while their dad is in rehab. It’s their summer break, so there’s no school or anything like that to distract them. What a perfect time for them to spend 3 months at Patrick’s house, right? With his pool, maid, and gay neighbors.

The kids are already reeling from the recent loss of their mother, and not totally understanding where their dad had to run off to. So, initially, Patrick just tries to keep them distracted with fun. He orders pool floats and bikes, introduces them to the wonder of brunch, and eventually even gets a dog.

People sometimes question why Patrick is “hiding” in Palm Springs, and not pursuing new work in LA. Patrick has also suffered a major loss – although it was years ago – and perhaps he isn’t really over it. Eventually, he and the kids learn to face their grief together.

And yes, I cried again. (For those who’ve read it – it was the cake scene.)

The kids also teach him about Youtube. And start a little spark in him that eventually leads him back into the world of a working actor.

Since it takes place in the summer – and a lot of it takes place poolside – I’d consider this a great summer read. But the heart of the story can be appreciated anytime.


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“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

Goodreads


This is a book that most “book fiends” have probably tackled – or at least heard of – by now. In fact, it was named the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction Book of 2020.

Among the many online reviews and posts I’ve seen people make about this one, I’ve really only seen one complaint – the fact that the main character tries to commit suicide can be depressing/triggering for some people. And while I would never fault anyone for their personal triggers, I do have to say – if you don’t get past that part, you will miss the entire story. The act happens near the beginning, and is what propels the main character to find the Midnight Library. So, I would say this – know that this is something that happens in the book, and proceed accordingly. While this is a fabulous story, it may not be for everyone.

Our main character is Nora Seed, and as it says at the top, she gets to try on many different versions of her life. But she doesn’t get to just pick them by what they are today – she has to change something in the past, not knowing what else might be different in that alternate reality.

To give you one example: our “root” Nora believes that she let her brother down by leaving the band they were in together. So, in one instance, she finds the life where she never left the band. The band is huge, global rockstars. She got to date her celebrity crush. But, her brother isn’t in the band anymore in this life.

Most lives, as this example illustrates, don’t turn out exactly like Nora envisioned. After seeing this play out a handful of times, Nora begins to have less and less regrets about the decisions she made in her root life.

The real key to what she learns from this experience can be found within the following quote:

There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are the result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood that there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness… there is not life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.

This is a fun story, with a good lesson. They do actually talk about the multiverse theory a little, but not so much that the book on the whole feels like science fiction – I’d call it closer to magical realism, maybe? Very real people and messy lives, with a little bit of the fantastic thrown in.


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“Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan, has arrived in this verdant corner of Prince Edward Island only to discover that the Cuthberts—elderly Matthew and his stern sister, Marilla—want to adopt a boy, not a feisty redheaded girl. But before they can send her back, Anne—who simply must have more scope for her imagination and a real home—wins them over completely. A much-loved classic that explores all the vulnerability, expectations, and dreams of a child growing up, Anne of Green Gables is also a wonderful portrait of a time, a place, a family… and, most of all, love.

Goodreads


I read this one in July as my #SummerClassic pick. It was originally published in 1908, and, according to Wikipedia, has been translated into 36 languages. A quick google search shows that various sites list it as being appropriate for children in the 8-12 range, which puts it squarely in the “middle grade” category. Nevertheless, this was my first time reading it!

One of the first things I found interesting in this book was the setting – Prince Edward Island. The only place I’ve visiting in Canada so far is Toronto, but I love cold weather, and have always felt like this region – on the Atlantic coast, just north of Maine – would be a lovely place to visit.

The story itself begins not from Anne’s perspective, but from that of a nosy neighbor watching Matthew Cuthbert leave town. We then learn that he and his sister, Marilla, are looking to adopt a boy of around 12 years old, to help with their farm. Neither of the Cuthberts married or had children of their own. Of course, we already know that their plan is going to get thrown off track when Matthew finds a girl waiting for him instead.

Anne is very imaginitive. This quality adds some pep into the Cuthbert’s formerly quiet life, but it also gets Anne into trouble fairly regularly. She loves trees and flowers, and delights in all things that bloom around Green Gables and the neighboring land. She is also overly concerned with the fact that her hair is red – a bad omen, in her mind.

The earlier chapters of the book go into many details of her adventures, and each one is likely to discuss only one incident at a time. Anne goes to both regular school and Sunday school – a first, in her life – and makes many friends and frenemies. We really get a feel for everyday life at the Cuthbert’s, and in the town in general.

The later chapters start to hurry things up a bit, as Anne goes off to college for a year and hopes to be a teacher. Some of them cover a whole season at a time. She initially wins a scholarship to go to an even better school, but tragedy strikes as Matthew passes away unexpectedly while she is home for the summer. Marilla’s eyesight is also failing, and Anne learns that she intends to sell the farm. Having none of that, Anne foregoes another year of school, and gets hired on to teach in town starting that fall. She cajoles Marilla into letting her support her in this way, instead of selling Green Gables.

This was a fun read, and recaptures some of the beauty of being a child with nothing to entertain you but your own imagination – and maybe some willing friends.


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Interview with Gregg Maxwell Parker, Author of “The Real Truth”

BY: Angie Haddock


A funny and touching novel about media, memory, compassion, confusion, religion, regret, politics, and purpose.

Goodreads


I found “The Real Truth” through Goodreads, and was excited that the author was open to doing an interview. The book itself was an easy and enjoyable read – it comes in under 300 pages and has a recognizable format.

The main character, Derek Severs, is a conservative radio show host who thrives on getting into arguments on-air. He starts being visited by ghosts – not of people he knows personally, but of well-known figures from history. Unlike this premise’s Dickensian predecessor, these ghosts visit in groups of 3-4, usually, and take Derek to various places he hasn’t been before (including Woodstock), in addition to some places he has been. Eventually, as Derek becomes more accepting that the ghosts are going to continue coming back, they take him to the point in his college days that he currently needs to come to grips with.

Without giving away the resolution, I would say that the book ties things up nicely, but not too unrealistically.

The author, Gregg Maxwell Parker, published this book a few years ago. He has since put out two more novels, the most recent being a middle grade novel. Here’s my unedited interview with Gregg.

Angie: Where are you living/writing from these days?

Gregg: After living in the US most of my adult life, I’ve relocated to Japan. My wife is from here, so that makes things easy. I am very happy to live in an era where I can stream NFL and NBA games from another continent. Otherwise, I might miss LA a lot more.

Angie: Did you always want to be a writer? Or, what inspired you to want to write books?

Gregg: I remember stating that I wanted to be a screenwriter as early as middle school. I loved movies and wanted to write them, though I had no idea how someone actually went about that since I lived in Nebraska and knew no one who had ever worked in movies before. I’d always loved to read, but never considered what went into actually writing a novel; books just sort of existed. Junior year of high school, my AP Lit class (shout-out to Mr. Holechek) read “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner and “A Place Where the Sea Remembers” by Sandra Benitez, and I discovered George Carlin’s books. That was when it first dawned on me that authors weren’t impossible geniuses, and that anyone could sit down and write a story about whatever they wanted. I studied Creative Writing at USC, and that was where I really fell in love with it and decided this was what I wanted to do.

Angie: Considering the topic of this one – have you ever worked in media before? 

Gregg: I’ve had a strange and meandering career path, with stints in many different industries – online media, film & TV, education, health insurance, industrial/agriculture, nonprofits, and plenty of office jobs. I think “The Real Truth” is a little informed by my own experiences, but what I found in writing it is that the book really took shape the more I moved it AWAY from the concrete reality I thought I knew and allowed it to be its own thing, let the character be his own person. Instead of making him as much like the talk show hosts I’d listened to as possible, I focused on how he was different from them, why he wouldn’t like them, and that’s when I was able to see him as a full human being and understand where he was coming from. Now, when I’m preparing to write something, I might do a little research, but as soon as I start developing a list of facts or details that I’m determined to include in a novel or story, I know it’s time to stop researching and start making things up.

Angie: The ghosts who show up seem pretty random – both as individuals, and in how they are grouped together – was that intentional? How did you pick who you wanted to write into the book as ghosts?

Gregg: I remember those sections were some of the first things I outlined when working out the idea. It may not seem obvious, but the choices of who those characters were and how they behaved were extremely calculated. This is a book that is largely about expectations – not just the main character’s, but the reader’s as well. These are, for the most part, people Derek has specific ideas about, just as he has specific ideas about morality and life and death and all sorts of things, and what he finds isn’t what he was hoping for. When he sees Abraham Lincoln, he’s expecting a specific thing, but it turns out this version of Abe isn’t the same as the one from life, and isn’t providing him with what he wanted. Derek is perpetually disappointed in both himself and the world around him, and now he’s finding out that this fantastical afterlife may be just as disappointing.

The same is true for the reader. I have to swim against a current in this story because it fits into a narrative that you’ve heard a thousand times. I know, based on the concept, that you have specific expectations about what will happen to this guy and how the story will end, and I have to subvert those expectations in order to open you up to the possibility of something different. The ghosts do a good job of making sure the reader understands what they’re in for. When Bob Marley shows up, I know how you’re expecting him to speak and act, and it becomes clear quickly that you won’t be getting it. In the same way, I know you’ve seen a hundred TV episodes based on “A Christmas Carol,” and you’re comfortable with that structure, but making you comfortable isn’t my job. It would be easy to write a story where a middle-aged white man is visited by people from his past, or people he admires who order him to change, but that doesn’t reflect the world as I see it. Everything you watch or read is “Man is selfish, writer/deity teaches him a lesson, he changes.” So the question becomes: “How do I do the OPPOSITE of that? What person is the OPPOSITE of who would be useful to Derek in the traditional version of this story?” The only way for me to give you something you’ve never seen before is to take something you’ve seen a million times and blow holes in it until it’s unrecognizable.


Angie: I felt like religion/Christianity was handled pretty fairly here. By that I mean – yes, there are some hypocrites in the bunch, but most of the churchgoers were kind and inviting (well, at least, to someone they thought of as one of their own). Should I assume you grew up going to church? Did you want to include religion in this story for any specific aim, or was it more just a part of the character’s atmosphere?

Gregg: I grew up in a religious environment, and I suppose some of those experiences informed the sections of the book that involve Derek’s church. I was thinking on this today, and I honestly don’t remember when or why those aspects of the novel entered the picture; I think it was just always a part of it, since the story deals so heavily with the afterlife, and with a person who has a definite idea of what that afterlife is and should be, so much so that he doesn’t want to look into it for fear that it’s not going to be what he expects. There is something tragic about people who are afraid to admit they don’t know something, and that’s the part of it that stays with me, looking back. I rarely read my own work once it’s finished, so it’s been a couple years since I opened this book, but I don’t think of the religious characters as being hypocritical or whatever words one might use, since that’s not how they see themselves. They’re convinced they know what is true and what is not, and they’ve made up their minds about this man. He’s thought of himself as part of a large collective of like-minded people, but as the story progresses, his mind is less made up than it once was.


Angie: Tell us a little about what you’re working on now or next. 

Gregg: After finishing a book each of the last three years, I decided I didn’t want to put anything out in 2020, and instead concentrated on learning how to advertise and promote my latest book, “Troublemakers,” which has been my most widely-read title and I think is my favorite thing I’ve worked on (though again, I don’t go back and read my old stuff, so that’s probably recency bias). I wanted to wait to let the next idea present itself to me, and after a few months, I settled on something that will be a real challenge. I’m still in the outlining stage, but this is looking to be the longest and most serious book I’ve ever written, so I honestly don’t know if it’ll come out in 2021 or later than that, but I’m excited to try something different.

Find Gregg’s books at his website or on Amazon.


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