book review: That Way Madness Lies, edited by Dahlia Adler




THAT WAY MADNESS LIES edited by Dahlia Adler
★★★☆☆
Flatiron, March 16, 2021


I only requested this anthology so I could read the Lear story and move on with my life (in my quest to read every Lear retelling I can get my hands on), but what can I say, once I had it on my Kindle I couldn’t resist. Even though I don’t particularly like YA and didn’t have the highest of hopes that these stories would engage with the plays in particularly interesting ways. Still, there were some pleasant surprises here.

That Way Madness Lies is a YA anthology by a handful of noted writers, each retelling a different Shakespeare play. The selection of plays itself is very good–there are the crowd pleasers as well as a couple of unexpected ones. The organization of this anthology bothered me on a couple of levels–first off, why is The Winter’s Tale placed in the Late Romances category but not The Tempest? We’re also frequently treated to 1-page author’s notes after stories, all of the same tenor; “this is why the original play was problematic and here’s how I decided to fix it”. Which, aside from being jarring and downright annoying, showed such a blatant disregard for Shakespearean scholarship that I had to laugh–yes, of course this is a commercial anthology intended for a young audience but my god, patting yourself on the back for being brave enough to consider The Merchant of Venice through Shylock’s perspective as if scholars, directors, actors, and audiences haven’t been doing exactly that for centuries is solipsistic to the extreme. 

Anyway, as always with anthologies, it’s a mixed bag. Some of these stories are unexpected and brilliant and others fall spectacularly flat. So, let’s do this.

Comedies

“Severe Weather Warning” by Austin Siegemund-Broka and Emily Wibberley (The Tempest) – 4 stars
A nice and melancholy snapshot into sibling rivalry as a storm rages outside, delaying Prosper’s sister’s flight to a prestigious internship that she effectively stole from her sister. Really enjoyed this one and felt that it was one of the most successful stories in accessing the original play’s themes even as a nonliteral reimagining. 

“Shipwrecked” by Mark Oshiro (Twelfth Night) – 3 stars
Twelfth Night meets high school prom–we’ve got some love and heartbreak coupled with mistaken identity shenanigans as one twin has recently come out as nonbinary and has started to resemble their brother. It’s a bit corny but mostly harmless. 

“King of the Fairies” by Anna-Marie McLemore (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – 1 star
Midsummer from the perspective of the “Indian” child abducted by Oberon and Titania. Hands down one of my least favorites from this collection; it couldn’t be more heavy-handed and patronizing if it tried. If you like McLemore’s writing you’ll probably like this story; I simply do not.

“Taming of the Soulmate” by K. Ancrum (The Taming of the Shrew) – 3 stars
A soulmate AU where Katherine doesn’t see color until she meets Petrucio at her sister Bianca’s party; rather an inconvenience for her 5-year plan. I take umbrage at a modern retelling framing Petruchio as the Reasonable One, but I grudgingly ended up appreciating where this story arrived.

“We Have Seen Better Days” by Lily Anderson (As You Like It) – 2 stars
I found this story perplexing. As You Like It, as far as I’m concerned, is fertile ground for a reimagining that focuses on gender identity (a topic otherwise omnipresent in this anthology)–and instead we get… a story about summer camp nostalgia and daddy issues? Anyway, I’d be happy to put my expectations aside about what this had the potential to be if it were any good at all, but it was objectively one of the weakest in the collection. 

“Some Other Metal” by Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy (Much Ado About Nothing) – 1 star
I kind of hate Much Ado so I was probably never going to like this very much but… yeah, it was bad. It follows two actors, Tegan and Taron, who play Beatrice and Benedick on stage, and off-stage have an antagonistic relationship, but they’re trying to be set up by their director. The meta narrative was painfully obvious and would be more fun if you enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick’s dynamic in the slightest which I can’t say I do. This story is also set in outer space for reasons that are of absolutely no consequence? 

“I Bleed” by Dahlia Adler (The Merchant of Venice) – 5 stars
Annoying author’s note aside I honestly adored this. The Merchant of Venice + high school doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven–right down to Antonio’s occupation being declared in the title, this is an inarguably adult work. Part of the fun, then, becomes seeing how deftly Adler adapts this story’s mature moving parts to a context which shouldn’t work at all… but somehow does, brilliantly. It’s a very literal adaptation which otherwise isn’t my favorite approach in this collection, but I found this one very successful. 

A Sonnet

“His Invitation” by Brittany Cavallaro (Sonnet 147) – 4 stars
A couple take a road trip to California in the only story in this collection that tackles a sonnet. I have to say, this one didn’t make a huge impression on me as I was reading (part of it due to being the shortest story in this collection), but interestingly it’s really the only one I’m still thinking about after having finished. 

Tragedies

“Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow” by Kiersten White (Romeo and Juliet) – 4 stars 
Yes, the title is stupid, but let’s move on. White actually does a remarkable job at capturing the simultaneous foolishness and lovability of the titular protagonists. This story is told entirely in text speak which admittedly is not my favorite, but it makes for fast, feverish reading, which is probably the effect that White intended. This story I felt was one of the most successful at transporting the emotional landscape of Shakespeare to a much smaller and more modern setting, and hands down the most effective story in the tragedy section. 

“Dreaming of the Dark” by Lindsay Smith (Julius Caesar) – 2 stars
Julius Caesar meets a private girl’s school and dark magic. The context of this one was so utterly contrived (Briony and Cassie have just killed Julia as a sacrifice to a dark god; Annamaria wants revenge) I couldn’t really take it seriously.

“The Tragedy of Cory Lanez” by Tochi Onyebuchi (Coriolanus) – 2 stars 
This one is probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Cameron Marcus, known by stage name Cory Lanez, is a rapper who was recently stabbed to death; this story tackles family, sexuality, and LA gang violence. Unfortunately it’s also told as an oral history, and it’s that format that I couldn’t really get past–I don’t think it works at all in short story form; the author hasn’t earned the reader’s investment in the character that we’re mourning and the result is tedium. Which is kind of fitting for Coriolanus to be fair.

“Elsinore” by Patrice Caldwell (Hamlet) – 3 stars 
Hamlet retold as a penny dreadful–we’re in Victorian England, and Claudius is a vampire. Anne (Hamlet) and Camilla (Ophelia) team up to take him down. This will work for a lot of readers better than it worked for me, it simply wasn’t to my taste.

“Out of the Storm” by Joy McCullough (King Lear) – 1 star
Oh boy, HERE WE GO. I was already approaching this with trepidation after despising McCullough’s bestselling Blood Water Paint, but I think my mind was as open as it could have been under the circumstances. Anyway, I remain unconvinced that McCullough has read anything more than the wikipedia summary for Lear as this really failed to engage with it on… any level deeper than ‘three sisters whose names start with G, R, C.’ Written like a play script, it’s a snapshot piece where we see Gabi and Cora at their dying father’s bedside at the hospital; Rowan, the middle daughter, bursts in and we discover that she’s absented herself from the family to get out from under their strict minister father’s thumb. Arguments ensue; Rowan is accused of being selfish, she retaliates that she had the fortitude to escape, etc., that kind of thing. Look, I’m sympathetic to the fact that Lear is one of the hardest plays to retell and I’m happy for a reimagining to be nonliteral, as long as it accesses some of the original play’s themes, which this just didn’t, at all. Ample meditation on truth, power, aging, justice, human nature, and cosmic inevitability to draw from and you opt for… three sisters with an over-controlling father? (The play script format was insufferable as well; if this were a real play it would be peak ‘family arguing at the dinner table’ theatre.)

“We Fail” by Samantha Mabry (Macbeth) – 1 star 
Just dreadful. Drea, a high school senior, has recently suffered a miscarriage, and her fiancé, Mateo, has been passed over for a football scholarship. When the two get in a car crash and their friend Duncan is pinned beneath the car, Drea convinces Mateo to wait before calling for help, so Duncan will die and Mateo can take his scholarship; and also because she’s still mourning the loss of her child and needs to take control of their future. I really despise Macbeth retellings that have a hyperfixation on Lady Macbeth’s fertility, and for that narrative to be given to a high schooler made it all the more perplexing and oddly melodramatic in a way that didn’t show a similar self-awareness as the Romeo and Juliet story. This was too rushed as well; maybe it could have done something interesting as a longer story, but hurtling through the events of Macbeth at breakneck speed just didn’t work.

Late Romance

“Lost Girl” by Melissa Bashardoust (The Winter’s Tale) – 4 stars 
This was a lovely story about Perdita who recently discovered the identity of her absent father, trying to cope with that as her new relationship with classics student Zal blossoms. It’s short and sweet and a nice note to end on.

Thank you to Netgalley and Flatiron for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Kink by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell




KINK: STORIES edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
★★★☆☆
Simon & Schuster, February 9, 2021



Like most anthologies, Kink: Stories was a mixed bag, though it’s certainly enjoyable for its novelty alone (its thesis being that erotica has a place in literary fiction). I found the preponderance of stories about BDSM started to get a little boring after a while, but this was otherwise a refreshing collection that I enjoyed spending time with.

I felt the stories that were the most successful were the ones that contextualized the characters’ kinks—I don’t mean that in a ‘every kink comes from a fucked up childhood’ kind of way; I mean that your life and your sex life are part of the same whole and some of these stories were more interested in interrogating that intersection than others. 

The two absolute stand-outs were Brandon Taylor’s Oh, Youth (tender, devastating) and Carmen Maria Machado’s The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (weird, sensual)–incidentally the two longest stories in the collection. The other surprising highlight for me was Trust by Larissa Pham, an author I’d never heard of, whose Vermont-set story I found evocative and effectively moving. 

The less said about Roxane Gay’s Reach the better, and a handful of other stories fell flat too, mostly the ones that lacked interiority of any kind. You could tell that a lot of these authors wanted to forgo character and dive straight into Commentary About Desire, and I always found that much less effective.

(Also, anyone looking forward to new Garth Greenwell should know that his story, Gospodar, is a chapter taken straight from Cleanness–I ended up skipping it when I realized I recognized what I was reading as I hadn’t particularly enjoyed that chapter the first time.)

Bottom line is that it’s honestly worth the price of admission for Taylor and Machado, but otherwise it didn’t totally reach its promising potential.


Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.