Out Brief Candle: A Shakespeare Death Day Reading List

Article by liz

Someday I hope to be famous enough that people celebrate my death day—although I suppose part of the reason we celebrate Shakespeare's death day is because we don't really have a concrete birthday, and I am lucky to live in an era of more-complete social records. Shakespeare did have a bit of a preoccupation with death, as well, if the body counts of his plays tell us anything, so a death day celebration feels particularly appropriate for this memento mori playwright. Join us this weekend to celebrate Shakespeare's 400th death day with the Houston Shakespeare Festival--and if you want a little themed reading, here's some awesome new young adult fiction inspired by Shakespeare! To stay particularly on topic, these stories all begin with some loss or death--but in the way even Shakespeare himself sometimes didn't, these stories tell us how to survive, fight back, and live life again.

The Steep and Thorny Way Cover Image
ISBN: 9781419719158
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Harry N. Abrams - March 8th, 2016

Cat Winters is the queen of historical fiction and a favorite author of mine, with her previous YA outings forming a core of store favorites (IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS and THE CURE FOR DREAMING). So when I saw that her newest novel was a Hamlet retelling set in Prohibition-era Oregon, where biracial Hanalee tries to find justice for her murdered African-American father without running afoul of the terrifying local KKK chapter, I was a fan before I'd even read the first page—and once I'd finished the whole book, I was happier than I'd ever been.

THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY isn't just a great Hamlet adaptation, it's a great book, period. Winters always fills her historical fiction with pictures and historical documents to set the scene, and this novel is no exception—if there had been no Shakespeare references at all, this still would have been a phenomenal story. But I'm truly grateful it's a Hamlet adaptation, because it shows how the stories Shakespeare made famous are incredibly universal: Prohibition-era Oregon? A biracial, female protagonist struggling against social evils? That's not as far from early modern England as you can get, but it's several million miles, at least. Stories don't exist in a vacuum, either, and I love that Winters used this famous, wonderful story of something rotten in Denmark to tell an amazing story about a time and a set of injustices that our culture still doesn't really want to face.

And like I said, beyond Hamlet, this book is just a great story. It crosses genres as deftly as Shakespeare did himself: it's a thriller, a mystery, a ghost story, all set so perfectly in the 1920s that you'll think it was written then. Hanalee is a fierce protagonist, too—clever, tough, well-armed, and incredibly caring. THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY is the full package: great characters, a great premise, and a great author.

Dreamers Often Lie Cover Image
ISBN: 9780803738638
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Dial Books - April 5th, 2016

The awesome thing about DREAMERS OFTEN LIE was that it made me feel so normal!

...oh, wait, that's not the point? People aren't supposed to hallucinate Shakespeare walking around with them? Oops. My bad. Let me regroup.

Jacqueline West's trippy, layered story is about Jaye, a high school actress, and what happens after she gets a concussion in a skiing accident. She's finally landed the lead in a school play—Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream—and all she can think about is getting back on that stage. So, when she forces herself to push through not just her accident, but the memories and family trauma it stirs of her father's death a year ago, the Shakespeare starts to get a little too real. As in, she starts hallucinating Shakespeare himself speaking to her, and Hamlet and Romeo and other characters and situations.

I love DREAMERS OFTEN LIE because, well, they do, and because, with Jaye as an unreliable narrator, even to herself, there's no way to be sure who's really real, what's really happening, or what's just in Jaye's mind. We don't know who's a figment or a person, what's Jaye's own mind working against her and what's really true. I loved this one. It's chilling, mysterious, and cerebral (a great book for a parent-teen book club!), and it'll pull you into the topsy-turvy world of Jaye's mind in no time at all. It's got a great love story, like a Shakespeare play should, but for all the romance and mystery, it's more about Jaye coming to terms with her loss, and with who she is now with these changes in her life and her family. It's tense and twisty, and Jaye's bardolatry gives a great original twist to this thriller.

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