It's been a while since I have written a long review, and longer still since I have posted one on this blog. Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month has been waiting patiently for its turn to be reviewed, and at long last I have written.
The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar (Papaveria Press, 2010, 73 pp.) - Amal El-Mohtar has been making a name for herself in the science fiction/fantasy writing community over the past year or so, winning the 2009 Rhysling Award in the short poem category for her poem Song for an Ancient City, continuing to co-edit the journal Goblin Fruit (of which I am a rather large fan), publishing her poetry and fiction in multiple journals and anthologies (including two appearances over at Podcastle), and publishing her first full-length collection, The Honey Month.
The first thing you notice when you pick up The Honey Month is the gorgeous design and artwork. Amal is now connected in my head with the artist Oliver Hunter, who not only creates original artwork and design for most of the issues of Goblin Fruit, but has created cover art and beautiful interior color and b&w illustrations for The Honey Month as well (I want Oliver to illustrate my book!). Taking a peek at Papaveria's website I see that they specialize in small handmade editions of books, so it does not at all surprise me that the design for Amal's book (which is not handmade, I suspect in order to make it easier to have a much larger print run) has been done with exceptional care.
The concept behind The Honey Month is an intriguing one. I follow Amal's blog, and actually read the project in its first incarnation. A friend of hers had gifted her with a set of 28 different honeys and Amal decided to taste one honey each day for the entire month of February and write a response of some sort to each honey. Some responses were poems, others short fiction, and other a melding of the two. She posted the responses on her blog, much to the delight of those of us reading, and after the project's completion, ended up with a publication deal from Papaveria. I love the idea of writing "projects", though I'm not particularly good at timely follow-through (the chapbook I most recently finished took me 4 years to complete) and am extremely impressed by Amal's work on this lovely project of synesthesia.
Each piece is titled with the day, and the name of the honey sampled on that day (ex. Day 9 - Zambian Honey). Amal then describes the color of the honey ("Sunshine in Ottawa, and a little paler still"), the smell ("More than a flower, something else, something earthy and nutty and malty at once. Hints of green and smoke, substance") and the taste ("A burnt wood taste, hints of anise; this is a honey that tastes very brown and black, dark with slants of light in it"). In some cases, the descriptions were my favorite part of the day's piece. Amal's personality and voice come through remarkably well in these short lines.
The creative works that follow the honey descriptions range from 6-line poems to 4-page stories, and most of them carry the fantastical element found in much of Amal's work. I particularly enjoyed the very-short fiction that accompanied Day 25's Raw Manuka Honey - essentially a story of the regret of a woman who has given up freedom in exchange for stability (of course, with a magical twist), the playfulness of the story for Day 7's Thistle Honey, and the simple bittersweetness of the poem of Day 20's Blackberry Honey (2). Not all 28 offerings were as strong as these - there were a couple that I felt would have benefited from a bit of expansion - but then, I do not expect to love every piece when I read a book, and do have an admitted bias against rhyming poetry (which pops up once or twice in The Honey Month). However, each piece did (quite successfully) give me a greater sense of having shared in Amal's experience of the honey.
It was also particularly nice to see a collection that brought poetry and fiction by the same author together - too often the two are kept away from one another, and it was pleasing to have the chance to read Amal's poetry alongside her fiction. As a poet I am usually much more partial to poetry than fiction, but will say that I found myself as drawn in by the fiction in The Honey Month as I was by the poetry, by the evocative and lush language found in both.
Unfortunately, I did stumble across one or two typos while reading, but they were but a mild distraction and will perhaps be corrected in a second printing. Papaveria Press notes that with a future edition of The Honey Month they will be including a sample of one of the same honeys written of in the book. As I have no idea where one would obtain the honeys written of by Amal, I can't wait to see this idea developed.
On the whole, The Honey Month is a conceptually beautiful, well-written, well-designed book put out by a press that clearly puts great care into the artistry of their books, and written by an author I would love to see get attention not only from the speculative writing community, but from the literary community as well.