Not-too-distant Dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale – by Margaret Atwood

Classic Literature, Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance

Security and liberty. One is often sacrificed for the other. What measures, what infringements on our liberty would we accept to ensure our security – from terrorist attacks, poverty, unemployment, ideas that we disagree with – is sustained?

The Handmaid’s Tale is an answer. Gilead, the envisaged future of America, initially seems alien from our society; as the book progresses, however, disturbing similarities emerge.

Women are property, kept in the home as either elite wives, ‘Martha’s’ who do the household chores, or handmaids who must produce offspring. Offred is the handmaid in the book’s title, and the book is her story. She vividly describes her life before, during and after becoming a handmaid: her daughter and husband whom she loves and misses painfully; her traumatic yet nostalgic time in the ‘Red Center’ where the ‘Aunts’ (pious women who uphold the regime) labored to inculcate her with the virtues of being a handmaid; her hyper-controlled, mundane life serving her assigned family.

I developed a morbid fascination with Offred’s miserable life (Atwood’s writing is captivating and vivid). Often as Offred speaks to the reader, her narrative devolves into random trains of thought, revealing her mental instability and loneliness. Initially, for the cause of safety from terrorism, people sacrificed their liberties; in time, the authorities expropriated them and became a greater threat than the official fear of terrorism. The repression took two forms: against society as a whole, and much more so against women in society. Atwood unfolds the profound links between Gilead and our world gradually, until the Tale’s glaring warning can no longer be ignored.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

In fact, the similarity is more poignant than even Atwood suggests, as Egyptian-American activist and author Mona Eltahawy describes in her NYT Op-Ed (here). In it she comments on the similarity between Saudi women’s lives and the lives of women in Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale remains ever-relevant, thanks not only to its presence in modern-day patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia’s but also to the popular Hulu series based off the book.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Slow

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Unfiltered Coming of Age: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – by Betty Smith

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie Rommely as she grows up, living in an immigrant community in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Her family are poor, eating a limited diet and keeping to a frugal lifestyle. Like so many in their neighbourhood, Francie’s father takes his Sunday suit to the pawnbroker’s every week, and Francie dreams of someday buying a book for herself rather than borrowing one from the library. A Tree, however, does not urge you to pity the poor or feel guilty about your affluence, nor does it romanticise poverty. Francie’s mother, Katie, exemplifies that dignity and hard work are far more precious to many than free hand-outs or sympathy; the strong woman is driven by the desire to better herself and her family, and would never accept charity. This book is about growing up, facing challenges and hardships, and coming to your own conclusions about life and the world. Francie, in all of her flawed, human self, is intelligent, honest and thoughtful; I dream to be half the person she is and becomes.

When I started A Tree, I was distracted, and was not hooked; I forced myself to read it when I had nothing else to do. The book became more engaging once Francie began to experience difficulties – her mother’s evident favouritism for Francie’s brother, Neeley; the death of her beloved father; the teacher who told her to write about beauty rather than her complex life in poverty. (These mentions do not spoil the book, either, as it’s no thriller – A Tree moves at the natural pace of life and memories, and there are few plot surprises.) I found myself moved by Francie’s realisations about how life is passed on and enriched through inheritance of traits and looks, and was inspired by her experience with her teacher and consequent discarding of all things deemed ‘beautiful’ and quaint. These, coupled with her profound and honest insights about life, make Francie wise, insightful and rounded.

For the most part, she lives an ordinary life. But her experiences are richly depicted so they seem real yet fascinating, reminding me of Francie’s comments on story-writing and ’embellishing’ the truth (although I don’t believe that this is what the author did, especially as the story is semi-autobiographical). Some ideas are naive and idealistic, but they’re also heart-warming, hearkening to the nostalgia and familiarity of the American Dream; I don’t believe there is any real harm in believing in the unlikely, especially as Francie herself (and the author) grows up to be successful.

In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.

If you’re looking for a captivating book, do not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the power of this book is in its authentic characters and the universal experiences they share. This book is equally suitable for a child as for an adult – enjoy!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Story of Survival: I am David – By Anne Holm

Historical Fiction

Set in the Second World War, I am David follows the escape of a young boy, David, from a concentration camp. He has lived there for as long as he can remember; suddenly, a suspicious guard makes plans for his escape, directing him towards the free country of Denmark. Although confused, David figures that it’s his only chance to escape; even if he fails, he’s has nothing to lose. To his disbelief, he makes it over the fence and he’s finally free. Resilient and determined, survival is his only occupation – until, gradually, he grows curious about ‘normal’ people. In a small, picturesque town, he learns more about the world, even aptly teaching himself the local language. A local baker generously gives him bread and David starts to believe in the kindness of others. On his journey, he experiences both goodwill and yet more misfortune, all along keeping his faith in a ‘God of green pastures’.

I am David was written as a children’s book, but it certainly isn’t too simple or naive. In fact, David shares thoughts so profound and serious that, if he hadn’t grown up in a concentration camp, would seem fantastical, unrealistic. But it’s that philosophical, insightful perspective that makes the book so unique – not just another haunting account of events or a naive child’s story, but in fact somewhere in between. The book also offers a nuanced view of the people living under Nazi occupation – the kindness that existed alongside unspeakable horrors.

Overall, although a little farfetched at times, I am David offers a different take on a topic which has been depicted and discussed so many times before. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a tale of survival set against a historic backdrop.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium

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Diary in a dark world: Never Let Me Go – By Kazuo Ishiguro

Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance, Sci-Fi

I was around two-thirds of the way through Frankenstein when I realised I had barely read in a week. I’d enjoyed the book up until halfway, at which point I often found myself re-reading the same paragraphs, forcing myself to go on. I was in a rut. Whether this was due to the book or my state of mind I’m not sure, but I wanted to get out of it. Looking up at my stack of books for inspiration, I realised almost immediately what I should read. I’d bought Never Let Me Go a while ago after hearing about the book and the even more popular film. It’d been sitting on my shelf for a while, and for no particular reason, I had never got around to reading it.


Never Let Me Go is set in a darkly distorted version of our present – too familiar to be dystopian, but not quite true-to-life enough to be realistic fiction. The book centres on three students’ childhood in a picturesque boarding school and their lives after leaving, following their friendships and romances. Written from the near future, the narrative meanders spontaneously as Kathy H, the narrator, recalls memories from her past. It reminds me of a diary – descriptive, but not boring; somewhat digressive, with one anecdote leading on to the next, but not difficult to follow. Although it’s hard to put my finger on how, the book is definitely well written whilst also remaining highly readable – a rare feat.

Before starting the book, I read the cover’s review excerpts; one described the novel’s subject as ‘ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.’ (Margaret Atwood, Slate.com) When I began reading, however, I was confused – I struggled to recognise any of our society reflected in the book’s skewed world. It was only as more details were revealed, near the end of the book, that the setting stopped being a distant horrific fantasy, but became conceivable, something that I could imagine happening. I was left with a scary thought, a dismal vision for the world’s future.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is a fantastic book – readable, well-written, and a familiar narrative with thought-provoking themes running beneath the surface. I would recommend the book to those who enjoy books largely about relationships; it is also great for people who like dark, somewhat dystopian stories.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Slow/Medium

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A Unique Perspective: Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

Crime Fiction, Fictional Memoir

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Intrigued yet?

When I first heard about the plot, I was skeptical. Although I have faith in McEwan’s writing (the esteemed author has written from various perspectives), a book narrated by a foetus sounded tiresome. However, after hearing the author himself speak about and read from his book at an event, there was no question that I wanted to read it (especially my signed copy!).

A foetus is just beginning to develop his first thoughts when he becomes aware that his mother and her lover (who he later discovers is his uncle) are plotting to kill his father. The book is heavily based on Hamlet, from names (Trudy for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius) to the plot itself, and sometimes even quotes:

Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

Nutshell: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.”

Admittedly, if I hadn’t been told of this ‘influence’, I wouldn’t have recognised it – I haven’t read Hamlet. I also can’t say whether this is effective as a retelling, or if my lack of knowledge about Hamlet affected my experience. After doing some (limited) research, however, I could certainly see the resemblance.


Perhaps surprisingly, the least realistic aspect of this book isn’t the supreme intelligence of the narrator, but in fact the conspirators’ passionate – murderous, even – anger and resentment towards the offspring’s father. It is never explained why they, and in particular Trudy, feel so much hatred for him. Progressively through the book, I was confused about where the mother’s loyalties lay.

The deficit in character analysis (due to the narrator’s circumstances), which is such a crucial element in McEwan’s novels, lets the book down somewhat. Maybe as a result of this, the characters are largely caricatures – not credible, relatable, real. I only hope this is intended, portraying the foetus’ ignorance and inexperience with people.

Although McEwan’ distinctive rhetoric – including his dry humour – is apparent in the foetus’ voice, this is (for the most part) a welcome aspect. The narrator is not believable, but this does not take away from the book’s narrative or overall realism. Sometimes, however, long rants with seemingly tenuous links to the storyline crop up from nowhere, and it’s clear that these are merely opportunities for the opinionated author to express his strong personal views. An example is when he rants about self-sheltered university students and their destructive politically correct ways. I appreciate that an author’s book is their place to do what they want (including communicating beliefs), but this only works if it is appropriate and not dropped in at random.

Finally, the writing style is confusing at times, with action and commentary jumping around. Perhaps this was for effect, but if even if it wasn’t, it was manageable; it didn’t hurt my reading experience.

All in all, I enjoyed Nutshell – hooked from the first page, it is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Compared to McEwan’s other books (at least those that I’ve read), however, it wasn’t his best. The ambitious choice of narrator mostly paid off, although did make for an unusual (and sometimes lacking) read. Read if you love Hamlet and/or Shakespeare retellings, you’re looking for a ‘quirky’ book, or you’re as obsessed with Ian McEwan as I am!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

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Far from the Madding Crowd – By Thomas Hardy

Classic Literature, Romance

This book is about how the lives of four people – Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, William Boldwood and Frank Troy – with different backgrounds and aspirations intertwine, charting their relationships through different circumstances.

I have never felt so relieved to have finished a book – Far from the Madding Crowd is ‘thick’ and heavy, despite its short length. Although it isn’t too slow-paced, or wordy, I struggled to maintain an interest in it. The cause of its insipidity is its topic: despite the beautiful romantic story suggested by the blurb, this book is about everyday life, and love, in rural England. Bathsheba Everdene, the centre of so much attention, has ordinary thoughts and feelings, most of which are self-absorbed. Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer – and my favourite of Bathsheba’s ‘suitors’ (or hopeful admirers) – is humble and understated in the way he lives his life. The only characters that seem somewhat fantastical come to their tragic ends through the course of the story. Perhaps this suggests the underrated value in living an ordinary, honourable life – sometimes, the most safe, boring option is the one that will make you happiest.

I felt compelled to read this book, knowing it to be a largely beloved classic; there is something distinctly rewarding in reading a ‘respected’ book, despite this being a poor reason for reading one. Nevertheless, I started it, determined not only to read it, but enjoy it. But frankly, I was disappointed: I tried to like it, but as I wasn’t gripped, I found it hard to pick up. I forced myself to read a couple pages every day, ploughing through it slowly and reluctantly. It wasn’t until the end that I finally began to enjoy it, when the plot gained momentum and exciting events occurred in succession. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t recommend the book at all: more than once, I came close to putting it down.

Far from the Madding Crowd is Marmite: some rave about it, whilst others think it tedious. I’m not sure which I fit under – I found a lot of it hard-going, but by the end wished I had savoured it. Overall, it’s a great, well-written book, but must be read with patience: eventually, it is rewarding. It’s good for people who like old classics for their language and history, but don’t want too long a book (and don’t mind a drawn-out, sometimes monotonous plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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