Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

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.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded On a Deserted Island

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded On a Deserted Island. I love this! This topic is really making me think… or over-think? If I was stranded… which means reading the same 10 books over and over again… potentially forever…

Hmmm, what to pick, what to pick? Here are my ten:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Not a surprise for anyone who knows me… I’ve already read this book (and series) multiple times, but if I’m going to be stuck on a deserted island indefinitely, I think I need Jamie and Claire for company.

The Lord of the Rings (one-volume edition) by J. R. R. Tolkien

Is it cheating to pick an all-in-one edition of three books? I’m declaring that this counts! I’ve been wanting to go back and reread LOTR, and with endless reading time to fill, it seems like a perfect opportunity to really dig in and enjoy.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’m tempted to just fill my list with all-in-one editions of all my favorite authors, such as a complete-works-of-Jane-Austen volume, if I had one… but I’ll hold back and stick to actual individual books…

In which case, I’d have to pick just one Jane Austen, although it’s a tough choice and I might want to swap for Persuasion. But really, can’t go wrong with any Jane Austen books!

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

I’ve been obsessed with this book since reading it last year and then re-reading it this year. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of re-reading it!

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I’ve read this book several times already, but each time, it affects me in new and different ways.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

I still have my edition of The Riverside Shakespeare from my college days, and it’s not exactly a light, portable volume. Still, if I were stranded on a deserted island, at least I’d finally have time to get to all the plays I haven’t read yet! (I know I said I wouldn’t do any more all-in-one books, but I had to make an exception for Shakespeare.)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I think this is a book that I haven’t spent enough time with yet in my life. I’ve read it only once, and I’ve always meant to go back to it again, at least once. And if not while stranded, then when?

The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

Yet another book that I’ve sworn to re-read at some point. Since it’s over 900 pages, this will last a good long while!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Such a beautifully written book! I listened to the audiobook my first time around, and I think lying on the beach of my deserted island with this book in hand would give me a whole new opportunity to enjoy it all over again.

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht

This just seems like a really practical choice for a deserted island situation. Although if I were truly being practical, then this list should include a medical book, something on identifying edible plants, and perhaps a book on sending smoke signals?

What books would you want along on a deserted island? Please share your TTT links!





Just For Fun: My new favorite puzzle!

The World of Shakespeare Jigsaw Puzzle
1000 Pieces
Laurence King Publishing

Departing from talking about books, books, and more books for a moment…

If you read my Monday Check-In posts, you may have noticed that I’ve become obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. Spending a year locked in your house will do that to a person!

I need to take a few beats to rave about how much I loved the puzzle I did this week. It’s The World of Shakespeare, and it’s wonderful.

This 1000-piece puzzle is bright, colorful, and highly detailed, pulling together different parts of the geography of Shakespeare’s time and world. But if you look closely, it also includes people and settings from both the historical time period and from Shakespeare’s plays — so you can find Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Caliban, and so many more. Some are pretty obvious, some are hidden among tons of other characters and features. It’s so much fun!

Note: Please excuse my shoddy photography. Next hobby goal: Learning to take decent photos!

Ta da! Finished after 3 mad days of obsessive puzzling…

The puzzle comes with a large-sized illustration to use as a guide… and what I really loved is that the back of the illustration zooms in and provides explanation of key people and places. I definitely would not have gotten them all otherwise!

The puzzle pieces themselves are sturdy, small (but not too small), and click together really well. There’s nothing worse than a shoddy puzzle — this one is terrific quality.

Zooming in for more detailed views:

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, jigsaw puzzles, or both, I can’t recommend this puzzle highly enough! This company also has a World of Sherlock Holmes puzzle (which I’ll skip, since I’m not a Sherlock fan) — and one I can’t wait to get, the World of Jane Austen! My Austen puzzle should be arriving this month, and I’m sure I’ll be attacking it the second it gets here.

Affiliate links: Buy now at AmazonBook

Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Title: Fools and Mortals
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother

Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .

In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition. 

Don’t you just love when a book takes you by surprise and ends up becoming a favorite?

Fools and Mortals is my book group’s pick for September, and I just wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about reading it. My impression was that it would be a dry read that I’d have to work to get into, and I just wasn’t in the mood. But, being a responsible book club member (ha!), I decided to give it a go.

As you can tell from the 5-star rating, I loved it. Once I started, I just couldn’t put it down. So let me tell you more about it.

Fools and Mortals is a story about William Shakespeare’s acting troupe at the Theatre in London, told through the perspective of his younger brother Richard. Richard ran away from home in Stratford as a young teen to escape a cruel apprenticeship, but his brother isn’t exactly warm and welcoming.

A very lovely-looking young man, by age 21 Richard has spent years as a player at the Theatre, although not a full member (Sharer) with a stake in the earnings. When he performs, he earns money. When there’s no part for him, or when there are no performances due to bad weather, he gets nothing. Richard lives in a dingy boarding house, constantly threatened with being thrown out if he can’t pay his back rent, and resorts to petty thievery to keep from starving.

On stage, he specializes in women’s parts, but he wants to be taken seriously. He yearns to be allowed to grow up, cut his hair, grow a beard, and take on the significant male roles that will allow him greater status as an actor. But Will doesn’t seem to have any interest in his brother’s goals, and when he finally promises him a man’s role, there’s still a trick involved that means Richard will end up playing a woman once again.

Meanwhile, there’s intrigue and action afoot. Will has earned a commission to write a play to be performed at the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter — the play that will become A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will is also working on an Italian play, which will be Romeo and Juliet.

But rival companies are also building huge theaters, and original scripts are invaluable in the theater world. If another company can get their hands on one of Will’s plays, they’ll be able to perform it and Will will have no way to get it back or claim it.

So when the new scripts go missing, there’s plenty of suspicion, and Richard is one of those accused of stealing the scripts in order to make some needed money. It’s up to Richard to get them back, but doing so is likely the most dangerous thing he’s ever done.

I won’t go further into the plot itself, but trust me — it’s fascinating! I loved the characters and the behind the scenes look at how a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream came into being. Through Fools and Mortals, we get to see the complicated business of patronage and protection, the terrifying power of the Persuivants (known as Percies) — the vehemently Puritanical force who have the power to arrest and convict anyone suspected of heresy — as they threaten the players, and the deadly serious competition and scheming related to gaining and keeping players and scripts.

William Shakespeare himself comes off as cold and heartless when it comes to his brother, but of course, we do get to see his brilliance as well. I was enthralled by the descriptions of how the players learn their parts, figure out the staging, interact with their audiences, and more.

Fools and Mortals reminded me of the (sadly) short-lived TV series Will that was on TNT a few years ago. Will was a little over-the-top at times, but the parts that focused on the players and the productions were terrific, and having seen the show, I was better able to visualize some of what was going on in Fools and Mortals.

This book was such a treat! So thank you, once again, to my book group, for getting me to read a book that I probably would have completely missed otherwise.

If you enjoy Shakespeare, historical fiction, the Elizabethan era, theatrical history, or really, just plain good writing, check out Fools and Mortals!

Thursday Quotables: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars


Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!



William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher
(published 2013)

For good, goofy fun, I don’t think I could do any better this week than William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. I’ve been picking it up and reading bits and pieces in between other books – so far, I’ve read acts I and II, and it’s pretty amazing. A love for Shakespeare and a love for Star Wars are both essential, needless to say. Random lines, for your enjoyment:


I prithee, lockest thou the door anon!


-Now are we follow’d hard upon
By an Imperi’l cruiser. Verily,
These passengers of great import must be
For they by the th’Empire hotly are pursu’d.
Chewbacca, prithee, swift make our defense
And angle the deflector shield whilst I
Make plan the calculations for light speed.


– Distract’d is my mind,
But through its cloudy haze the reason comes:
Unless I am in error, someone here
Has come. I have not felt this presence since
The days that are but dark in memory.
This presence I have known since I was young,
This presence that once call’d me closest friend,
This presence that hath all my hopes betray’d
This presence that hath turn’d my day to night.
This awful presence present here must be,
So shall I to this presence violence


O help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, help.
Thou art mine only hope.

And the classic uncle/nephew dialogue:


Take thou these droids unto our vast garage.
My wish it is they clean’d be ere we dine.


But unto Tosche Station would I go,
And there obtain some pow’r converters. Fie!

I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did! The Shakespeare/Star Wars books would make great stocking stuffers for any of the geeky, hard-to-please folks on your gift list this year.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!


Blog Tour & Book Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore


Book Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

The Serpent of Venice: A NovelI’m thrilled to be participating in the blog tour for the brand-new Christopher Moore novel, The Serpent of Venice.

Christopher Moore writes about demons, sea monster, and vampires. Also about Jesus and Impressionist painters, talking fruitbats and humpback whales. In other words, this is an author who defies categorization, yet one thing is for sure: If you don’t fall on the floor laughing at least a few times reading any of his many novels, well… you’re probably doing it wrong!

Moore’s trademark humor is firmly in place in his newest novel, The Serpent of Venice, a follow-up to his 2009 novel Fool. Fool is a retelling of King Lear, with the king’s fool Pocket serving as main character and very clever (and occasionally obscene) narrator. In The Serpent of Venice, Moore returns to Shakespeare with the further adventures of Pocket, using as his framework not one but two Shakespearean plays, plus a little Edgar Allan Poe for good measure.

Loosely weaving together the plotlines of The Merchant of Venice and Othello (trust me, it works), with a bit of The Cask of Amontillado thrown in as well, The Serpent of Venice follows Pocket the Fool as he maneuvers his way through the devilish machinations of a host of scheming bad guys. He meets up with Shylock and his daughter Jessica, confronts the evil Iago, befriends the great general Othello and his wife Desdemona — and plays all sides against one another, with daring, wit, agility, and plenty of Christopher Moore’s trademark “heinous fuckery most foul”.

Remarkably, Moore weaves the source material into his outrageous new work almost seamlessly, so that for those who enjoy such things, it’s possible to take certain scenes and follow along paragraph by paragraph, and compare back to the same scene in the Shakespearean plays. Combining these works, modernizing the language as needed, adding in raucous humor and heaps of vulgarity — plus Marco Polo, a sea serpent, and a monkey named Jeff — may sound like a crazy mess, but in The Serpent of Venice, there’s a certain beauty to the wackiness, and it really  holds together in a way that’s a wonder to behold.

Fans of the author will be gratified, as always, by his quirky, irreverent approach to language, not afraid to take some of the most honored works in the English canon and stand them on their ears:

“Thou mendacious fuckweasel,” said Emilia, almost spitting it, disgusted now rather than hysterical.

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” said Iago.

“Methinks the lady protests just the right amount,” said Emilia. “Methinks the lady is just getting fucking started protesting.”

Even from the book’s very beginning, we get a dose of prime Moore in the introduction “The Stage” that lets us know what we’re in for:

Strangely, although most of the characters are Venetian, everybody speaks English, and with an English accent.

Unless otherwise described, assume conditions to be humid.

For me, one of the most amazing pieces of this book is the author’s afterward. After laughing my way through the book itself, it was fascinating to read about the author’s research, his careful study of the source material, the decisions he made about the setting and time periods, and the historical elements woven into the story. Without being too preachy or teachy, he manages to convey a ton of information in these few short pages, so that I walked away from The Serpent of Venice not just having laughed, but also having learned about Venetian history in the 13th century, racism and anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s time… and what Christopher Moore really thinks about *ahem* being intimate with dragons.

Either Christopher Moore’s crazy approach to life and writing appeals to you or it doesn’t — and if it does, The Serpent of Venice is a treat. Fans will absolutely want to read The Serpent of Venice, and will not be disappointed. If you’ve never read anything by Christopher Moore — and you like to laugh and you’re not easily offended — I’d say give him a try! For Shakespeare with a twist, start with Fool and then read The Serpent of Venice… and if those appeal to your sense of offbeat humor, you’ll end up wanting to read everything else in the author’s catalog of funny, weird, and wonderful books.

About the Author:

CMooreChristopher Moore is the author of eleven novels, including the international bestsellers, Lamb, A Dirty Job and You Suck. His latest novel is Fool, a retelling of King Lear from the perspective of Pocket, the Fool.

Chris was born in Toledo, Ohio and grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. His father was a highway patrolman and his mother sold major appliances at a department store. He attended Ohio State University and Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. He moved to California when he was 19 years old and lived on the Central Coast until 2003, when he moved to Hawaii.

Before publishing his first novel, Practical Demonkeeping in 1992, he worked as a roofer, a grocery clerk, a hotel night auditor, and insurance broker, a waiter, a photographer, and a rock and roll DJ. Chris has drawn on all of these work experiences to create the characters in his books. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys ocean kayaking, scuba diving, photography, and sumi-e ink painting. He divides his time between Hawaii and San Francisco.

Christopher Moore’s website:


The details:

Title: The Serpent of Venice
Author: Christopher Moore
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: April 22, 2014
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, visit the author’s website or stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

  Kissing Shakespeare

Kissing Shakespeare by Pamela Mingle

From Goodreads:

A romantic time travel story that’s ideal for fans of novels by Meg Cabot and Donna Jo Napoli–and, of course, Shakespeare.

Miranda has Shakespeare in her blood: she hopes one day to become a Shakespearean actor like her famous parents. At least, she does until her disastrous performance in her school’s staging of The Taming of the Shrew. Humiliated, Miranda skips the opening-night party. All she wants to do is hide.

Fellow cast member, Stephen Langford, has other plans for Miranda. When he steps out of the backstage shadows and asks if she’d like to meet Shakespeare, Miranda thinks he’s a total nutcase. But before she can object, Stephen whisks her back to 16th century England—the world Stephen’s really from. He wants Miranda to use her acting talents and modern-day charms on the young Will Shakespeare. Without her help, Stephen claims, the world will lost its greatest playwright.

Miranda isn’t convinced she’s the girl for the job. Why would Shakespeare care about her? And just who is this infuriating time traveler, Stephen Langford? Reluctantly, she agrees to help, knowing that it’s her only chance of getting back to the present and her “real” life. What Miranda doesn’t bargain for is finding true love . . . with no acting required.

Why do I want to read this?

I feel like all of my book choices lately have either been creepy, scary, or heavy — so it’s time for something light, fun, and romantic! I’ve had my eye on this YA novel since it came out last year, and you know what? I think a time-traveling romance involving William Shakespeare sounds like the perfect summer read.

So what are you doing on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

Much Ado: A fangirl goes to the movies

Today, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing the newest movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, which was screened as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

What can I say? It was fantastic.

I’m an unabashed fangirl when it comes to Joss Whedon and his world, and the fact that so many actors from the Whedon-verse — Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and more — had key roles in Much Ado made it all the sweeter to see.

On top of which, I’m a book geek with a fondness for Shakespeare, and although I’m much more familiar with the tragedies, I’m always up for a good Shakespearean comedy. Much Ado About Nothing happens to be one that I’ve never read and had never seen before, and I did have a bit of trepidation ahead of time as to whether I’d actually “get” it. Not to worry, though. From the opening scenes, it was easy to pick up the rhythms of the language, and it all flowed beautifully.

Filmed in black and white in a modern setting, the art direction and style of the movie is contemporary and quick. The staging allows the actors to shine, particularly in their use of body language and interactions, and their comedic timing is impeccable. Nathan Fillion in particular was hilarious, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof were sharp and witty as Beatrice and Benedick, and Fran Kranz as the love-smitten Claudio was both puppy-dog sweet and quietly dangerous. Really, I could go on and on about the cast, but suffice it to say that there was not a one that I could find fault with. Their line deliveries were as smooth as they’d be if they were, well, in some other Joss production. For the man who perfected the art of quippiness, directing Shakespeare must have been a natural fit.

Both Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof were present for the screening, both to introduce the film and to participate in a Q&A session afterward. They were funny and charming, and got Joss on speakerphone before the movie to say hi to the audience. Adorable.

So here’s the trailer:

The movie opens June 7th in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Don’t miss it!