The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for awhile now, and I finally got around to it. I had even started reading it once before, but ended up putting it down. I’m not sure why though, because this is a really engrossing book right from the start. The world in the novel is so alien, even though it takes place in what used to be the United States that we know. It reminds me of a lot of contemporary dystopian novels that take place in the U.S. of the future that still looks similar and yet is inhabited by a very difference society.

The Handmaid’s Tale, however, was first published in 1985, so it’s not exactly contemporary. This novel also has something that many contemporary dystopian novels don’t. That’s a strong religious theme.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this story follows a young woman who serves as a handmaid to a prominent man in society and his wife. In this role, she is basically forced to have sex with the man, called “the Commander,” in the hope that she will bear a child for him and his wife to raise.

The whole story takes place in a society that has been completely overhauled. Old school Christian ideals and beliefs that have been twisted by problems in modern society have taken over. Women are no longer able to work or control any money. They are required to remain in the home in order to serve their husbands and families or the families of others. And because birth rates have dropped, many fertile women are arrested and required to become handmaids.

The universe of the story is one that is difficult to read about, but Atwood does such a great job of pulling the reader in and making you feel for the narrator. You also get a really good sense of where the narrator has come from and how she ended up where she is now, because Atwood intersperses current events with flashbacks from before society changed as well as from the narrator’s time at the “Red Center” where she was taught about the new society and learned how to be a handmaid.

But the story is very much centered on the narrator, since it’s from her point of view, so a lot of other details are left out. This is mostly because she doesn’t really know everything that’s going on. She knows what the public knew before society changed, what she’s been told at the Red Center, and what little she is able to find out from her fellow handmaids.

I mention this because you spend the entire novel with the narrator and her narrow view of the world, until the very end of the book. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the main plot ends vaguely, but it’s followed by a historical note that goes into a lot more detail about the society in general.

The note is from the perspective of a historian in a distant future, talking about the main novel as a transcript of a recorded account. He believes that it’s a real account, but they’re trying to determine more details surrounding it, including who some of the people might have been. So in order to do all of this, the historian describes a lot of the background behind the creation of this society.

However, I’m not sure I appreciate the sudden enlightenment after spending the entire novel with very few contextual details. It almost seems like Atwood is going against what seems like the choice of obfuscation (which is supported by the fact that the novel is ended vaguely) to suddenly share a lot more information directly following the main section of the novel. And I’m just not sure if I wanted that information. At most, I would have liked a less vague ending, but the end note doesn’t even provide that clarity. So I’m just not sure what it does for the overall story, except to explain some details that the narrator couldn’t have known. But the story should be about the narrator’s journey, right? I think the narrator tells her story well, so adding an end note feels almost unnecessary (especially if it doesn’t answer any questions about her or what happened to her). If anything, it raises more questions about the future society than it answers about the society in question.

That being said, I did really like this book. It’s one of those sci-fi classics that’s definitely worth reading.

If you’ve already read this book, what did you think? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Happy reading!

Alyss

(photo courtesy of Goodreads)

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Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (includes spoilers!)

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Here’s a link to the Goodreads page, if you’re interested.

This was another one of those books that I picked up at the library after cataloging it. It seemed interesting, if maybe a bit lighthearted from the the blurb on the back cover. The story focuses on Naila, a Pakistani-American girl who is a senior in high school. She’s about to graduate and go off the college to study medicine. However, her parents have always said that when the time comes for her to get married, they will arrange the marriage, and she isn’t allowed to date before then. So when her parents find out that she’s been dating a boy named Saif, they’re furious and decide that Naila and the family need to take a trip to Pakistan to reconnect with their roots (and keep Naila and Saif apart).

It’s not until her parents extend the trip and start being vague about future plans that Naila begins to worry. She finds out that her parents and extended family intend to arrange a marriage for her, like right now, and that she’s not going back to America. All of those friends and family members who have been coming to visit, they’re the families of her suitors. And it seems like everyone knew about it except her.

Well, Naila’s not having that. She wants to go to college to become a doctor, and she wants to be with Saif. So she tries to escape, and this is where the book gets really dark really fast. Her uncle catches her, takes her back to his house, and she’s drugged and locked in her room until her wedding can occur. And when she tries to say no, that she doesn’t agree to the wedding, she is forced to sign the marriage contract anyway. She’s quickly sent to her new husband’s home, where the family is nice to her at first, but her mother-in-law gets very upset when she finds out that the marriage hasn’t been consummated. So Naila’s new husband essentially rapes her because his mother made him, even though he seems like a nice guy in general, and is trying to make the whole situation as easy as possible for her.

She does eventually escape, with Saif and his father’s help, but not before being beaten by her husband’s family and miscarrying her husband’s child. So the ending is happy at least.

This book was such a surprise, since the blurb was a little misleading. As I said, I was expecting it to be a lot lighter. And after the first few chapters, it certainly wasn’t light. At the beginning of the book, her parents seem strict and traditional, but they don’t ever seem to treat Naila poorly. They do, however, always treat her brother better than they treat her. But as soon as Naila has broken one of their rules, everything changes. They’re not physically or verbally abusive, but they basically tell her to trust them and not question any of their decisions anymore. They take Naila’s money and passport, and they take her cellphone once they realize she has still been talking with Saif. You quickly get the sense that she is being watched everywhere that she goes, and her entire family is keeping her on a very tight leash. Part of that is traditional Pakistani culture, I think, but things go downhill so quickly once she tries to run away, and the reader realizes just how controlling her family is.

She doesn’t get much help from anyone, except Saif and his family. Her cousin tries to help her and gives her the money she uses to run away, but as another unmarried daughter, the cousin is under similar close scrutiny and control. Her husband’s family has no idea that she was forced into the marriage or was held against her will beforehand. When her husband finds out, he’s sympathetic, but does nothing to alter her situation. He basically tells her to move on and accept the situation, because things can’t change.

The reader really gets a sense of the Pakistani culture from this book, and especially from the way different people act. The women are much more willing to be nice and try to help, but only to a certain extent, because things are the way they are. And the men, although many seem nice and genial at first, quickly show how violent and controlling they can become if they are disobeyed. It was really interesting to experience, since as an American, I’m not used to that way of life at all. I think this book also shows (and the author’s note confirms this) how prevalent forced marriage is throughout the world, in Middle Eastern culture as well as others. I know that arranged marriage doesn’t necessarily coincide with forced marriage, since many people very willingly enter into arranged marriages. But this book really shows how easily the situation can become forced.

This turned out to be a really great, eye-opening book, especially in the YA genre. There are so many YA books that tend toward lighter topics or fantasy or science fiction topics that aren’t real. But I think it’s so important for anyone, but especially young adults who are learning about the world, to be exposed to things like this. Because not everyone has privilege, and not everyone is in control of their own life.

What do you think of serious topics like this one? I’d love to hear in the comments.

Happy (or maybe not so happy) reading!

Alyss

(photo courtesy of Goodreads)

The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft

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(photo courtesy of Sigrid Rodli Illustration. On a side note, you should go check out their illustrations. They’re really cool and creepy.)

I’ve had a couple forays into the horror genre. I read some Edgar Allen Poe in school, like everyone else, and I’ve read some more modern horror stories that include vampires and werewolves and the like. But this is the first time I’ve ever read a story by H.P. Lovecraft, who is arguably one of the masters of the horror genre.

I was introduced to H.P. Lovecraft by my husband and brother-in-law, both of whom are huge fans of Lovecraft. They’ve read the stories, and they play all of the board games and card games based off of the Lovecraft Mythos. I’ve played the games with them as well, and they’ve been encouraging me to read the stories. I was definitely intrigued by the universe that Lovecraft created, so I decided to finally give it a try.

The collection that I bought is called The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. I picked it mostly because it has an awesome cover (pictured below), but my brother-in-law assured me that it has a good selection of Lovecraft’s stories as well. It also has an introduction detailing Lovecraft’s life and writing, which is pretty interesting.

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(photo courtesy of Goodreads)

The funny thing is, though, this collection doesn’t include The Dunwich Horror. I also checked out an audiobook collection of Lovecraft stories, and listened to this story instead. It was an interesting first story to choose, because it is a later story for him, and takes place within the more developed universe that he created during his writing career. So a lot of the details were somewhat recognizable from my experience with the board games based on his Mythos. Which probably wouldn’t have been the case had I started right from the beginning of his body of work. I think I’m going to go more that route in the future. At the very least, I’m going to read the stories in the collection I bought in order (I checked, and they are in the order in which he wrote them).

Now to talk a little about this story specifically. The Dunwich Horror focuses on the fictional town of Dunwich in Massachusetts and one family who lives there, called the Whateleys. There are rumors that the father practices “witchcraft,” and the daughter has a child out of wedlock, who turns out to be very strange. This child not only looks odd, but he grows and learns very quickly, and his grandfather is teaching him “witchcraft” as well. And they are doing strange things in their house and up on the hills near the town, which lead to some interesting happenings and a monster that terrorizes Dunwich.

I like the perspective the story takes, following the Whateleys and their strange doings as well as the other families in the town, and later a librarian who ends up investigating and trying to stop the monster. It makes for an interesting view that is both distant at times, and close at others. I really felt like I was a part of the action of the story, which made the whole thing feel a little bit more creepy and disturbing.

I definitely recommend this story and Lovecraft’s work in general for anyone who likes to read horror. I’m going to be reading more of his stories, and I’ll continue to talk about them as I do.

If you like Lovecraft, do you have a particular favorite story to recommend? Leave it in the comments!

Happy reading!

Alyss

If I was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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As promised, I’m finally talking about the book I read most recently, called If I was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. This book is about a transgender girl who moves to live with her father in Tennessee after being assaulted. She transitioned as a teenager, and passes very well, but she is still coming to terms with being a girl and living the life she wants to live. She meets new friends in her new school, and even meets a boy that she likes, but she doesn’t tell anyone that she is transgender. She worries that if she does tell her new friends or boyfriend that they will react the way that other people she knows have reacted and she will get hurt again.

I really find stories like this interesting, and have read a couple other similar books in the past. But this one was a little bit different, in that Amanda has already fully transitioned at the start of the story. There are a few flashbacks to events during and before her transition, but the bulk of the plot takes place in the present. So the story shows her trying to make friends and fit in, to really experience what it’s like to be a girl and have friends and a boyfriend, since this is all new for her.

One thing that I thought was really cool is that this book is actually written by a transgender woman. That’s not to say that stories like this must be written by someone who has directly experienced the difficulties they write about. Writers are definitely capable of doing enough research to write competently about their subject matter. Of course, this is a very general statement, and some writers write more authoritatively than others just as some books are better written than others. But what I’m saying is that I feel like writers who have some experience with what they’re writing about can bring a really interesting perspective to stories of this nature.

However, after reading the book, I read the author’s note at the end, which changed my opinion a little bit. In the author’s note, Russo talked about how she decided to write Amanda as a transgender girl who passed very well and who was able to transition at a younger age than might realistically be possible. This gave me a little bit of pause. Not that I wanted the character to have it harder than she already did, as unfortunately tends to be the reality for many transgender people. I just expected that the story would feel more realistic since it was written by a woman who could better share the experiences of transgender women. Maybe that’s too much to ask from a YA novel, and maybe the writer just wanted to make Amanda more relatable to readers, but I was a little bit disappointed.

Despite that, I thought this was an interesting take on a transgender coming of age story. While it wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, nor was it the best book on this subject matter that I’ve read, I think it was still worth reading. Stories like this one are important to read, since they broaden our understanding of people who aren’t like ourselves, and don’t share our experiences.

Has anyone else read this book or any other books like it? What do you think of this subject matter? Let me know in the comments.

Happy reading!

Alyss

(photo courtesy of Goodreads)

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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I heard about this book awhile ago from a booktuber who I follow (Books and Quills), bought an ebook copy, but only just got around to reading it. I’m definitely glad that I got to it eventually though, because it was a really good book.

The story is set in New York City in the 1890s, and follows Jo Montfort, a girl from a wealthy family. At the beginning of the novel, her father dies, supposedly accidentally while cleaning his gun. But the circumstances of his death don’t sit well with Jo and she finds some things in her father’s study that don’t add up. So she starts investigating covertly, lying to her mother about where’s she’s going during the day, and sneaking out of her house at night. The more she discovers though, the more things become less clear, and soon she’s trying to uncover some shady dealings that her father’s shipping company may or may not have been involved in.

She receives help along the way from a newspaper reporter named Eddie Gallagher, a medical student and coroner’s assistant named Oscar Rubin, and a pickpocket named Fay, all of whom lend their expertise in helping Jo to solve the mystery.

This book really is more of a mystery than I’m used to reading, and some of the scenes where Jo is talking through evidence with Eddie and Oscar feel very much of the mystery genre. There’s also a scene near the end of the book where the villain explains why he did everything that he did, which felt a little heavy-handed as well.

Another part of the book right at the end describes a court case that occurs after the villain is found out, and it was so different from the rest of the action of the story that it was slightly jarring to read. Most of the action of the book is shown rather than told, and we’re going along with Jo as she’s trying to figure everything out. But then this end part completely shifts to Jo looking back from months later to the events of this court case, and essentially telling us how everything played out. I understand why the author might have done it this way, to condense a portion of the story that might not have been quite as interesting to read, but they way it shifted suddenly from showing to telling was really strange. Does anyone know if this is a trope in mystery novels as well? I really don’t read enough mystery to be able to say for certain, but like I mentioned earlier, there were certain things that just screamed mystery to me, and I wondered if this was another.

However, despite the really stereotypical mystery elements, I really enjoyed the journey of this story. We get a lot of Jo’s struggle to fit into her upper-class world and still get what she wants out of life. She really wants to be a journalist, which I think is an interesting take on the historical fiction heroine who wants to break free from society. In a more traditional turn of events, there is also some tension between the society guy that Jo should marry and Eddie Gallagher, whom she feels a strong connection with. I really enjoy story lines like this, in which heroines don’t do quite what is expected of them for their time period. I also really like how the story ends up, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who’s interested in reading this book.

Has anyone else read this book? Let me know what you though of it in the comments.

Happy reading!

Alyss

(photo courtesy of Goodreads)

No Baggage by Clara Bensen

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(photo courtesy of Goodreads)

So this book was kind of a random choice for me. I was looking for something new to listen to on audiobook (I have a long-ish commute to work, and I usually alternate between podcasts and audiobooks), and found this one while cataloging at work. It sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try.

The book is a memoir, recounting the start of Bensen’s relationship with a quirky, minimalist professor named Jeff Wilson. Having just met and started dating, Bensen agrees to go on a trip across Europe with Jeff. But the catch is that they can’t bring any luggage and they can’t make any reservations or plans. The whole situation makes for quite an interesting trip, with some ups and downs for them personally as well as for their new relationship.

While this kind of trip isn’t something that I would ever attempt myself, especially with someone that I’ve just met, it made for really interesting listening. Not only because of the exciting travel journey, but because of Bensen’s mental journey as well. In the memoir, Bensen discusses her struggle with mental illness, which she was just starting to get over when she met Jeff. This is part of the reason she decides to accept his invitation, because she feels like the trip will break her out of her comfort zone and help her overcome some of her difficulties.

I really think that this aspect of the story, the fact that she’s still trying to overcome her mental illness, makes it more than just a quirky travel adventure story. And the fact that she’s also trying to mesh with someone who she hasn’t known for very long, who is very different from her, makes for some really interesting conflict. The premise of this story does remind me of some other memoirs like Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, but to me this feels a little bit more realistic and less “inspirational” than others in that life-changing memoir genre. This one, on the other hand, feels a bit more down to earth, and as the reader you’re not completely sure how everything is going to work out in the end. This is something I usually appreciate in a story, since it can get really boring to read a story that you already know to ending to.

I think one other thing that really made this memoir good was being able to listen to the author read it. A good narrator can make the difference for any audiobook, and the author reading their own book is always really cool. But I feel like it’s almost required for a memoir to be read by the author, since they can put so much more of themselves and their experiences into the reading. It really makes all the difference.

If anyone has read this book, what did you think of it? Also, if you have any other memoirs to recommend, let me know in the comments.

Happy reading!

Alyss

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

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I read this book a couple months ago during my blogging hiatus, but I really wanted to talk about it now because it might be one of the most interesting realistic YA fiction novels I’ve ever read. The story follows two twins, Noah and Jude, and the perspective switches back and forth between them. The interesting part is that Noah’s perspective takes place when the twins are 13-years-old, and Jude’s perspective takes place when they’re 16-years-old. So as the reader, you find out bits and pieces from each twin, but you don’t really know the whole story until the very end.

I don’t really want to give away too many details, and the way the book is written makes it hard to say what is the main plot and what is side-story. Overall, you just get a really good picture of both twins from their own point of view as well as from the other’s point of view. There’s a bit of romance, a bit of back-stabbing and jealousy, and also a lot of coming of age. And all of that is mixed with the perspective of two very different twins who are both artists. The way they see the world and interpret things makes the book almost magical to read, without necessarily considering this to be magical realism.

This book definitely made me think after reading it, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves realistic YA fiction. If you want to go and take a look, I’ll add a link to the Goodreads page.

Happy reading!

Alyss

(Photo courtesy of Goodreads)