The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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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 valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years 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…

The Handmaid’s Tale is my first Margaret Atwood book. And if The Handmaid’s Tale is a reflection of what I can expect from Atwood’s other works, then this book certainly will not be my last.

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Angelfall by Susan Ee

angelfallI am often very specific with my book choices. I usually read books that have either been recommended to me, are renowned, or have been well-received by readers. However, every so often I pick up a book that I have heard nothing about and decide to read it; examples would be Charm and Strange or Under the Never Sky, both in which I randomly picked up at my local library and thought I would give them a try. I came across Angelfall when I was reading some reviews on The Forever Song; Goodreads had recommended the book in the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ section. Completely oblivious to the glowing reviews of Angelfall, I thought what the heck and read it.

A point that many others and myself can agree on is that Angelfall is an enjoyable read. Though it has a shaky start, once it takes off Angelfall is certainly entertaining with enough intrigue and action to keep you interested. Penryn is a likable main character that is multidimensional and well-written, and she was my favourite aspect of this book. Despite having all attributes of the ‘badass female character’, she also has insecurities, fears and anxieties with substance, and flaws. She was also fiercely devoted to her family, regarding them with the utmost love and importance, and never for a chapter does she forget her overarching goal and why she sets out on her mission in the first place.

Though the writing for Angelfall is decent as a whole, when Raffe, Penryn’s unlikely companion who is an angel, is described, it reads like soft erotica. The superfluous descriptions of his contoured, muscular, athletic body read a bit like that one erotica book that I read. There was an astounding amount of description of his body, how perfect and Adonis-like it was. The energy devoted to describe Raffe’s muscles should be devoted to developing his character. Raffe may not be human, but from Angelfall, he has shown to have human-like qualities and emotions. He is lofty, and pretentious, but who is he under that facade? (I have no idea. I want to know.)

In extension to my qualms regarding this book, like some of the other reviewers have pointed out, it seemed strange to me that most of the world has been decimated in a short six weeks. Angelfall takes place in the United States — I find it unbelievable that the nation known for its military-industrial complex and excessive spending on military was somehow destroyed in such a short time. I understand that Angelfall is an urban fantasy, so it necessitates suspension of belief, but the lack of thought with this aspect inclined me to believe that this important plot point was contrived and haphazard.

This ties in with the exposition in the novel – in which there is hardly any. I understand that the condition in Ee’s world is intended to remain mysterious and therefore ethereal, but it was a detriment to the substance of the novel. Though midway through the book we gain a little insight in what happened and why things are the way they are, even that was unsatisfying. For what, I assume, was intended to make me more curious made me feel frustrated. Angelfall is a great story, but as the background or history is unknown to the reader, it requires the reader to take too much of the story on faith. For me, it felt shallow – the unfortunate part is that I know it isn’t.

Nonetheless, Angelfall was a good read and I will give the second book, World After, a go in the future. My hope is that Ee will delve further into the history, nature, and condition of the angels; I loved reading those small, sparse parts about them, so I hope we will learn more about what they are, and why they are on Earth. Angelfall has a lot of potential, so I sincerely hope that this is just a small start to a fantastic and great finish.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: Angelfall
Book Series: Penryn & the End of Days #1
Author: Susan Ee
Publisher: Skyscape

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

remains of the dayThe Remains of the Day isn’t just a book – it is a book that breathes, feels and murmurs with life. It is perhaps one of the more subtle and beautifully written books that I have read in recent years; Ishiguro has unparalleled command of the English language.

For such a quiet book, with all its melancholia and nostalgia, The Remains of the Day rendered me speechless at its end. Set in postwar England, Stevens is, what one would call, a traditional English butler, with his ideals, values, thoughts, ideas, and aspirations structured entirely by his profession. Following a suggestion by his new American employer, Stevens goes on a motoring vacation across the West Country; it is through this journey that Stevens’s character and psyche unravels through vigorous introspection, thoughtful reminiscence, and monologues with intents of self-preservation.

For what begins as just a story about a butler, The Remains of the Day grows to become so much more – it is an illumination of the past, the arousal of consciousness, the gradual realization of one’s condition, and the understated loss of one’s own life following retrospection. It is about questioning what is dignity, what makes us great, and what gives us purpose, but above all, it is about how not all values are invulnerable and may be used to hide our own vulnerabilities and faults in life. It is about being able to look back in one’s life, and finding those moments where we lived — or in times where we did not, where we sacrificed and lost, and to ultimately what end?

As much as I want to share my analysis of this novel (I took so many notes!), I read this book without knowing anything about it – pivotal, significant events included. I firmly believe that this is how the book is best read; to go in knowing naught about its characters, namely Stevens, and then to be slowly pulled head-first by its compelling narrative.

Stevens was flawlessly written; he felt so real, so complex, and being given the opportunity to understand him is a privilege in itself. By the book’s end, I felt so much sadness for Stevens, but also felt hope for him too. The aftereffects of The Remains of the Day are gentle, tinged with bittersweet, but evocative and will linger and occupy a small place in your soul. The Remains of the Day is a stunning meditation of life, and the tragedy that sometimes come with it.

Rating: 5/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber & Faber

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

leaving timeI won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway last year, and I regret that it has taken me so long to finish it and review it. Regardless, thank you Allen and Unwin publishers for the book. Please note that my review is based on an uncorrected proof of Leaving Time.

Picoult’s books and I have a weird relationship.

My first book by Picoult was Nineteen Minutes, which I read when I was in high school. I enjoyed it immensely, and I drank in the different perspectives, the controversy, the narratives — and for an impressionable, naive high school student, I was shaken by the traumas of the characters and the effects of bullying (I had an extremely fortunate childhood). In contrast, my second Picoult book was My Sister’s Keeper, which I vehemently despised. I found the narratives emotionally manipulative, and the ending an out-of-field, cheap deus ex machina that left me so angry I vowed to never pick up another Picoult book again.

So, it is by good fortune that I won Leaving Time in that Goodreads giveaway, because I think I am now willing to retract my assertion. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed Leaving Time. Though extremely slow to start (hence why it took me so long to finish it), once you pass the midway mark the pace picks up and the plot develops into a compelling, intriguing narrative that hooked me until the finish.

Like most Picoult books, Leaving Time has multiple perspectives in a parallel narrative (one in the present and the other in the past). I am usually apprehensive to multiple narratives, but with Leaving Time I found that as the story progressed, the story developed, the characters fleshed and the plot and mystery deepened. Further to my surprises, I found that I connected with the characters – though I would not qualify them as profound or utterly memorable, there was just something striking in their circumstances that I couldn’t help but connect with them, empathize with their struggles and their demons, and hope that they could find what they were looking for to move on.

On that note, I think it’s necessary for me to say that I love elephants – they’re one of my favourite animals. Leaving Time has a lot of anecdotes about elephants, given that elephants are central to some of the characters’ occupations, and I enjoyed reading these small stories about them. However, if you don’t care for elephants, parts of the book may read like non-fiction. However, the integrating elephants into the narrative is without purpose – ultimately, Leaving Time is about motherhood and the bonds we – and elephants – have with our mothers. It is exploring the depth of those bonds, the inherent nature of them, and explores the impact of grief and loss should we ever lose it.

Despite my positive opinions about this book, the downside is that it was exceptionally slow to start, and it took a significant amount of effort to finish it. Suffice to say, it took me a few months to get through the first half of the book, but only took me three days to finish the second half. The second half enthralled me, but the first half bored me. Although I enjoyed the mystery aspect of the novel, even going as far to say that I liked the twist (in which I actually surprised myself), it was only the end of the book that justified my reading experience of Leaving Time. There is not much else to savour except the end, and whilst this book ties nicely in the end, it was disappointing that the book ended when it started to get interesting.

It seems that every reader has differing opinions on the elephant anecdotes and the Picoult plot twist, so if you decide to read it, proceed with caution because liking this book really boils down to personal taste. All in all, Leaving Time was a good read, and I would recommend it to fellow elephant lovers.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: Leaving Time
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Allen and Unwin

A Walk To Remember by Nicholas Sparks

walk to rememberI watched the movie years ago and cried like a baby. Even though I was conscious of the fact that everything in the movie was sculptured to emotionally manipulate me, I fell for it. Fortunately, the book did not have the same effect on me. Reading A Walk To Remember was like eating a whole tub of chocolate ice cream by yourself – it feels good while you do it, but after you just feel awful and annoyed with yourself.

A Walk To Remember is, without a doubt, the most emotionally manipulative book I have read to date. Which came as no surprise to me, because even though this is my first Nicholas Sparks book (and probably my last), I am very familiar with his criticisms – that he writes predictable, sappy, saccharine loves stories that will make you cry. (Please refer to this Cracked.com article written 5 years ago but remains relevant today.)

Allow me to elaborate on that last point: the problem with Sparks’s novels isn’t that his books make you cry, but it’s the fact that he tries extremely hard to make you cry. There are topics that are inherently sensitive for many people, such as young love, love that is separated, terminal illnesses, unexpected accidents and tragedies, death and dying, and so on.

These issues are not off-limits, but given the nature of these topics, they should be written with sensitivity and with dignity. Sparks does neither; instead he unashamedly, unapologetically reminds you of the very tragic, very sad, very horrible circumstances of his characters. This is no exception in The Walk To Remember; all of his characters aren’t human beings, they are accessories to further Sparks’s goal to write his super sad stories. To drive my point home, this line is within the first chapter:

First you will smile, and then you will cry – don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Only writers who try to make you cry would ever say such a thing. Or just really bad writers. Or both. (Both.)

Needless to say, the writing left me speechless at times. If you’re wondering what sort of speechless, consider these lines:

Wishing someone luck before a play is supposed to be bad luck. That’s why everyone tells you to “break a leg”.

Gee, Sparks. It’s a little insulting to assume your target audience is incapable of understanding idioms that are prevalent within Western society and culture.

“It happened so fast, Mom, the car came out of nowhere. It just darted out in front of me, and I couldn’t stop in time.” Now, everyone knows cows don’t exactly dart anywhere, but his mother believed him. She used to be a head cheerleader too, by the way.

What sort of insulting, stereotypical, sexist drivel is this?

… I’d come to realize that drama was just the most boring class ever invented.

How is this man a bestselling author? No wonder people feel sad after reading his books; it’s the end of good literature as we know it.

Rating: 1/5

Book Information
Book Name: A Walk To Remember
Author: Nicholas Sparks
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing