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1st April
2010
written by Steph

One of the things I find really rewarding about the book blogging community is the way in which it exposes me to tons of books I might never have encountered or thought twice about on my own.  There’s often talk of the abundance of books, and it’s true that this can be overwhelming, but I have found that after a brief period of madness when I was scrabbling to read everything I encountered through blogs, I’ve actually become more discerning reader.  By reading more, I’ve really begun to understand my own tastes as well as make peace with the fact that I’m not going to be able to read every book that’s every published, or even all those that cross my path, and so it’s critical that I seek out the best books.  And by “best books”, I simply mean the ones that are best for me.  The ones I learn from, the ones that make me stretch, and yes, even the ones that simple tickle my fancy and make me laugh.  After all, there’s nothing wrong with having fun when you read! I admit that The Lunatic, The Lover, and The Poet is a book that I probably wouldn’t have read if Trish hadn’t offered it to me (for free) via TLC Tours.  As much as I love Shakespeare, I don’t read historical fiction very often, and I’m always a bit leery of books that take other author’s characters and reinvent them.  That said, I was intrigued by the snippets that I read, and Hamlet is probably the Shakespeare play that I know best, as I’ve studied it twice (and even went and saw the Kenneth Branagh über long film version when it was released in theatres), so I decided to verge outside of my comfort zone and give it a try. I find it difficult to frame the story in TLTLaTP, because at first I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a retelling of Hamlet or if we were following Shakespeare and seeing how he found the inspiration for the play itself.  In the end, it was kind of both of these things, but also neither of them.  Hermes takes the stance that the characters in Hamlet are real and places them out in the Elizabethan world.  They then go about and have (mis)adventures, and various things that happen are clearly taken from the pages of the Hamlet (though some are slightly reinterpreted/twisted),  but other events are of Hermes’s own creation and have nothing to do with the Hamlet we’re all familiar with.  Much of the story is told from the perspective of Horatio, who is a scholar at Wittenburg, where he meets Hamlet.  The two develop a strong friendship, which eventually becomes something more.  At the same time, Horatio is working to pen a play for a wealthy baron, and an unexpected love triangle develops, one fraught with misunderstanding and jealousy.  Things only get more complicated when Horatio discovers that he has another rival, who goes by the ribald name “Shake-Spear”, who is attempting to woo Hamlet (among others) with poetry that is eerily similar to his own.  I suppose it’s true that the course of true love never did run smooth… Not too long into this book, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the story (there are parts that are supposed to be a mystery, I guess, but I didn’t find them all that difficult to figure out on my own) and there were certain anachronisms that really bothered me (for example, the word “gobsmacked” is used at one point, and I’m pretty sure that word wasn’t around in the 1500s).  I couldn’t really figure out what Hermes’s point was in writing this story – was she just trying to be edgy by introducing homosexuality into the mix?  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. But, I kept reading.  And I’m really glad I did, because eventually I got into the zone and was able to appreciate the homage to Shakespeare that Hermes put together here.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a perfect book, but I appreciated all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to the Bard; there are references aplenty in this book, from plays within plays, to quotes embedded in everyday speech.  I had fun trying to pick them out and place them, and in the end I felt like the spirit of the book was very true to its source material.  Sure it gets quite bawdy, but so were Shakespeare’s plays, and the issue of homosexuality is actually quite interesting, given the way it was viewed at the time AND the fact that many have questioned Shakespeare’s own sexuality.  I think this is a book that one could probably enjoy without getting all the references and layers, but it’s probably going to be better appreciated by those who have more than fleeting knowledge of Shakespeare’s work.  I think the story itself is not all that inspired, and only becomes cool when you can see how Hermes has reworked certain bits of something else. One thing I’ve noted in the various reviews that have gone up about this book is that many people said they enjoyed the love story that’s portrayed between Horatio and Hamlet.  I have to say the romance in this book really did nothing for me.  I felt like we got a lot of “telling” and not a lot of showing – Horatio and Hamlet are always talking about how much they love each other, but it was never clear to me why that was.  Other than Hamlet’s good looks, why did Horatio care for him?  Was it just sexual?  I was never convinced there was anything more than physical attraction happening.  And while I acknowledge that mistaken identities and love triangles thrive in Shakespeare’s play, I thought the triangle in this play was pretty ridiculous, again mostly because many people’s behavior become inscrutable, the motivation unclear.  I pretty much didn't get the baroness's behavior throughout the entire book, and she most of all felt like an odd caricature.  I guess we could write off any opaque behavior as “jealousy usurping rationality” but that seems like a fairly broad stroke and a bit superficial.  I liked how Hermes showed us different sides to the characters, but I wanted more depth, more insight, and I felt that some of that was lacking. All in all, this is a quick read, and one that’s fun if you’ve brushed up your Shakespeare (per the Cole Porter song).  There are some parts of the book that I felt didn’t quite work, but there’s plenty of good and clever stuff there if you happen to be a bardolator.  Also, reading this made me want to revisit Hamlet (Tony and I were doing a readthrough before Christmas, but lost steam), reminding me that it’s a really wonderful play with wonderful writing. I’ve not read all of Shakespeare, but it’s probably my favorite of his plays that I have read, so it’s high time I gave it another whirl.  I’m glad I tried something different, and I ultimately found this a rewarding read.  Once more, Shakespeare’s proved true: all’s well that ends well! Rating: 3.5 out of 5 If you'd like to read some other opinions about this book, please check out some of these other stops on the tour:

Wednesday, March 24th: Regular Rumination Thursday, March 25th: Book Addiction Monday, March 29th: Life in the Thumb Monday, April 5th: Raging Bibliomania Tuesday, April 6th: Wordsmithonia Wednesday, April 7th: BookNAround

8 Comments

  1. 04/01/2010

    Love your thoughts, Steph. The blogging community can be overwhelming with the recommendations. I’ve learned, like you, to hone mental restraint. As well as discover which bloggers have tastes that run with mine.

    I have a question–you mentioned that it’ll be a fun read with some Shakespeare in you. What about if my knowledge of Hamlet is mediocre at best. How would that affect the reading, you think?

    I needed to ask that question because you also mentioned impatience about the so-called subversion in retelling tales, with using the characters of other writers as one’s own. Was Hermes effective?

    [It occured to me: Is this whole genre Literary FanFiction? Eek.]

  2. I haven’t heard of this one either. My knowledge of Shakespeare is really poor – I hated it at school. Perhaps I’d enjoy it more now, but I’m not sure I’m ready to find out.

  3. 04/01/2010

    @ Sasha: Yes, discovering bloggers whose taste is similar to mine has been crucial. I read a lot of blogs, but some I do for the writing/entertainment value more so than actual recommendations.
    I think if you have mediocre knowledge of Hamlet, you’d still enjoy the book. It is an interesting blend of retelling and completely new material, and the parts that are more directly related to Hamlet the play are pretty large plot points, I think. I think another element of appreciation, however, comes from having a general understanding of how Shakespeare’s plays worked and the elements he often included (like mistaken identity, for example). It’s the kind of book where prior knowledge isn’t a pre-requisite, but the more info you have going in, the more you’ll probably enjoy it.
    And I have often thought of this genre as literary fanfiction! I think Hermes does it better than most because she has really transmuted the original story into something different, and provided new perspectives on the characters. It’s not just taking them and putting them through a new story, which is what I often find is true for things like Jane Austen sequels. So for that reason, I’d say Hermes was actually very effective.
     
    @ Jackie: Given that you’re not all that interested in Shakespeare, I’m not sure this would be the book for you. Parts of it you could certainly still enjoy, but I think much of it’s appeal wouldn’t be there for you.

  4. 04/01/2010

    Thanks, Steph. There’s been such a surge in retellings lately, and some of them I’ve found incredibly ridiculous. At least there’s a, hm, a classiness in Hermes. Then again, I still want to find out if I’d find the homosexuality a “necessary” part of the retelling–if she made it count in the end, that is–or just something gimmicky.

    You pointed out up there that it was too much tell for comfort, so ultimately, still on the fence with this one.

  5. 04/01/2010

    I’ve been dying to know what you thought of this book because some others haven’t enjoyed it as much. I love how you break it down, and I think you’d be so awesome to be in a book club with! Thanks for being on this tour!

  6. Lu
    04/01/2010

    This is a great review! I agree with most everything you said, even though I enjoyed the romance (though I agree, it seemed mostly sexual) and never eventually got around to being satisfied with the book as you did. There were definitely elements of this book to like, so I’m not disappointed I read it, I just didn’t think I could recommend it.

  7. 04/01/2010

    Very thoughtful review! I think you make a lot of good points about the love affair between Hamlet and Horatio and can totally see what you mean. Overall,I really appreciated the inventiveness and originality of what Hermes was trying to do with the story and felt that it was really very clever. I really liked a lot of the sections dealing with the baroness because she was really unpredictable. I agree with you that her motives were extremely unclear, but I kind of found her to be a bit of a wild card in the story. I think I liked the book a lot more than you did in the end, but I’m glad that it wasn’t too bad of a read for you 🙂 I was particularly interested in what you would think knowing that you are a reader of Shakespeare.

  8. 04/02/2010

    @ Sasha: I tend to think that Hermes did a good job in the end, and the homosexuality didn’t ultimately wind up feeling glib or like a sneaky way of being subversive. The issues I found with the relationships in this book were true for both the hetero and homosexual relationships, so I think Hermes crafted everything to the best of her abilities. I probably wouldn’t have liked this one as much as I did if I weren’t such a Shakespeare fan to begin with, so take that for what it’s worth.
     
    @ trish: I do think this is a book that appeals more to those with a more extensive background in Shakespeare, and of course, with the play Hamlet specifically! I’m grateful for the opportunity to have read this book, because I probably wouldn’t have known about it otherwise.
    And thanks for the compliment re: being in a book club with me… not sure the people in my real-life club feel similarly, but thanks anyway! 😉
     
    @ Lu: I think we felt quite similarly about the book, though I think I did like it more in the end than you did. I’m not sure who I know personally that I’d recommend it to, but I do think there is an audience for it!
     
    @ zibilee: I’m really looking forward to reading your thoughts on this one, because I know you really loved it. I did ultimately appreciate the inventiveness that Hermes used in reshaping the original play, and it certainly gave me lots of food for thought. As you know, this isn’t the type of book I normally read, so I may have been somewhat disadvantaged there, but overall I’m glad I read it. It was certainly an enjoyable way to pass two days!

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