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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book’s Description:
In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….

My Description:
“I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” So explains Offred, the narrator of our story. We see this bleak future that Atwood has created and glimpses of the “time before” through her eyes–the eyes of a handmaid, a mere vessel for ovaries and babies she will not be allowed to raise even if she is lucky enough to conceive. Even her new name, Offred, is dehumanizing. It literally means “Of Fred.” No woman is her own in this new world. All she has is her bed and four bare walls in her Commander’s house. She hasn’t even seen herself in a mirror since the Republic took over and she was forced into training (read: brainwashing) to become a Handmaid. Mirrors have all been destroyed because so many woman killed themselves with mirror shards. So many wasted wombs…

The scary thing about this novel is that it’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy. Women are treated like objects all over the world. Even in the United States, in the not too distant past, women were treated as second class citizens. When we are given glimpses into Offred’s “time before,” it is our time. It’s the world we are living in now. One of the reasons the Republic was able to render women inconsequential seemingly overnight, is that everyone’s money was electronic. Offred attempted to use her debit card one morning and found that she couldn’t–later that day she learned that it had become illegal for women to own assets, land or have their own money. Of all things, this struck me as frightening because it’s entirely possible. All someone would have to do is flip a switch and “poof,” all our money could be gone or worthless. “Where are the riots?” you might ask. They get mowed down by the government. Peaceful protests don’t exist anymore. One bloody massacre is all it took for the country to lay down at the Republic’s feet.

But all is not lost. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is a spark, there is a fire. Offred stumbles upon the “May Day” movement, an underground group of people who oppose the Republic. We aren’t shown too much of what May Day does, other than unite non-believers to show them that they aren’t alone, but the end of the book leaves Offred at a crossroads where perhaps she will find out.

I chose to read this book because it is on every dystopian must read list. Being relatively new to the genre (ushered in by The Hunger Games and Divergent), I had to start somewhere and I am so glad that I started here. I cannot express how much I enjoyed this book. I have many ways  of measuring whether or not a book is good to me. One indicator is how long a book sticks with me. Another is how much of the book I highlight because I love the way different things are written. The Handmaid’s Tale scored off the chart for both of these internal methods. This story stuck with me for days, even long after I was done reading it. I couldn’t shake the realism, imagery, injustice, horror or the sadness I felt for the characters and their circumstances. As far as highlighting, I felt I was back in college when I would highlight only the important parts only to realize I’d highlighted everything. Atwood is an amazing wordsmith, a truly prolific writer. Every word she writes has a purpose and they dance off the page. I can’t wait to read more by her.

Needless to say, I loved this book. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of a definitive ending. But even that may be a stroke of Atwood’s genius. We are left up in the air–hanging uncomfortably in suspense–just like Offred. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her and neither do we. She is confused and scared, but hopeful. And so are we.

Grade: A+

Fun Fact: If you’ve read this book, you may have been disappointed that we are never told Offred’s name from the “time before.” It’s so important to her, and she references her name so many times, but it’s never given to us. I know I was disappointed. But a quick Google search yielded this gem: “The women in training to be handmaids whisper names across their beds at night. The names are ‘Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June,’ and all are later accounted for except June.” So we can deduce that her name was June. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to know that, but it does.

Final Thoughts: READ THIS BOOK!



Filed under Book Review, Books, Dystopian, Reading

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Book’s Description:
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that Miss Peregrine’s children were more than just peculiar. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow–impossible though it seems–they may still be alive.

My Description: 
“Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940,” are the last words that Jacob’s grandfather, Abe, utters to him as he dies in his arms.

It’s Abe’s death and these seemingly nonsensical instructions that set 16-year-old Jacob’s journey in motion. Partly to not dismiss his grandfather’s last words as senile banter and partly to allay the nightmares that have haunted him since his death, Jacob travels to the island where his grandfather grew up with hopes of shedding light on his mysterious life.

An orphan of the Holocaust, Abe spent his childhood under the tutelage of Miss Peregrine at her home for Peculiar Children. Jacob grew up hearing Abe’s fantastical stories about the monsters who chased him and the children who lived there–a girl who could levitate (cover), a boy who was invisible, a girl with 2 mouths, etc. We are led to believe that Abe imagined this magical world and told his stories as children’s fairytales as a defense mechanism against the very real horrors that he faced in his life. Upon arrival to the mysterious island, however, Jacob discovers that the children and the monsters are actually very real.

I chose this book because everything about it, from the cover to the synopsis, promises a strange, haunting and creepy read. In actuality, there isn’t much that is creepy about it at all. Though peculiar, the children aren’t dangerous. And they aren’t quarantined so much as in hiding for their own safety.

The buzz on this book, of course, is the collection of vintage and downright bizarre photographs peppered throughout the pages. While I applaud the originality, I have to wonder how much more story there could have been if the photos hadn’t been such a central focus.

Oftentimes, character development is cut short, almost as if to say, I don’t have to flesh out this character anymore because I’m going to show you a picture of them instead. On the other hand, a few scenes feel unnecessary or misplaced–were they created for the sole purpose of showcasing a favorite photo rather than advancing the story?

Another issue I take with this story is that it gets from point A to point B very quickly. Riggs spends so much time describing this new world that Jacob has found, that by the time we’re finally presented with a problem in the last quarter of the book, we have to rush through the solution. Jacob gets his “Aha!” moment, but we don’t get ours because we’re not privy to his past experiences. Everything is handed to us in the form of  exposition for sake of time. A and B happened because of C. We need to do D to fix it. E is the plan. There we did it. The end.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the writing was excellent. The words flow beautifully and are wonderfully descriptive. Reviewing this book posed a unique challenge because it wasn’t what I expected it to be, and how do I draw the line between reviewing the story that I wanted to read versus the story that the author wanted to tell?

Overall, I liked this book. It sometimes reads as though the story was created to connect the photos rather than the photos were supplied to enhance the story, but I can overlook that because it has a strong concept. The story has good bones and imaginative, colorful characters. The ending was a bit abrupt, but it did leave the story open for a sequel. Perhaps we’ll get more of a backstory and deeper character development in the next installment. I’m definitely curious to see where this story goes.

Grade: B-

If you liked this book, you’ll probably also like: 

  • His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. The dark experiments that created the “monsters” in Peculiar remind me very much of the daemon separation experiments that take place in The Golden Compass. Riggs also briefly touches on time travel and strongly hints that it will be a central focus in the next installment. His mode of time travel is reminiscent of Pullman’s multiverse concept.
  • I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore. John Smith is hunted tirelessly by monsters (in his case aliens) for being one of the last of his kind–just like Jacob. It will be interesting to see if Jacob turns into a survival expert now that he has discovered his “power.”

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Fantasy, Reading, Young Adult