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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

1

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 Рpivotal, 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

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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

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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 Рit 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 Рthat 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

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Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

siddharthaNever in my life have I researched a book so extensively after finishing it. I looked everywhere for any sort of indication that someone shared my thoughts on this book. Ironically, I found two others who felt the same way I did on Goodreads, and with that, I feel more confident in writing this review.

There was an itch on my side while reading Siddhartha. That itch is attributable to two things: that people perceived Siddhartha¬†as an accurate representation of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy, and that Siddhartha is not an accurate representation of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy. Though perhaps ‘researched’ at best, it just didn’t sit well with me that a book,¬†that talks a great deal about the philosophy, history, teachings, and virtues of Buddhism, was written by a person who was not Buddhist. In saying that, I do not necessarily take issue with a person who writes about something that is beyond their realm of personal or lived experience, but if you do not have the¬†lived¬†experience of something, it is very likely that you will misrepresent or misconstrue it.

Siddhartha is perfectly packaged for non-Buddhists to read, and still feel comfortable and unchallenged in their worldview and perspective. The values and rhetoric it espouses still fits within the Western values framework, even though this book centres on Eastern philosophy. Siddhartha was written to satisfy people who feel a cultural void in their life and who want a dose of something that is otherwise unobtainable and easy to consume. Siddhartha is a self-help book for the philistine.

Hesse’s prose reads like how¬†ignorant¬†people appropriate and commodify foreign cultures to make themselves feel more cultured, and he tries extremely hard to make the prose sound as spiritual¬†and exotic¬†as possible. This¬†sort of writing creates a gulf between the subject matter and the reader – to deliberately alienate the reader so that the reader can spectate Siddhartha’s life as an outsider, thereby reinforcing how foreign and intrinsically different¬†everything is – from trees and¬†people to way of life.¬†This is an exotification of the Other – and the Other is everything we read about in Siddhartha. I take issue with this because it is inherently dehumanizing – the characters aren’t really treated as humans with depth, flaws and complex characters, but are painted as caricatures of an Orientialist fantasy.

Despite my qualms with Siddhartha, if I took a step back and told myself that this was not a book about Buddhism, there were some passages in the book that I could appreciate (even if the tone was shallow, pretentious and lofty at times). Hesse writes beautiful imagery that is both vivid and sublime.

Light and shadow ran through his eyes, stars and moon ran through his heart.

Is this revelation? Is this suffering? Is this resignation? Is this peace? What resonates with one individual will be different for another. Despite my criticisms (which I stand by with regardless), if Hesse had written about something else Рsomething that was not inherently about Buddhism Рperhaps I would appreciate his writing more.

If you ever do choose to read¬†Siddhartha,¬†read it for its narrative and the allegory.¬†Do not go in thinking that this book is an accurate portrayal or representation of¬†Buddhism. If you can overlook its inherent flaws and how pseudo-spiritual it tries to be,¬†there are nuggets of beauty¬†to be found in¬†this book, and perhaps it may speak to you. It just didn’t so much for me.

Rating: 2/5

Book Information
Book Name: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse

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The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

truth about foreverSometimes, after working a full-time job where people shoot the messenger (and that messenger is you) and you come straight home to your responsibilities as a co-founder of an organization, before you go to bed you want to read a cliched, lighthearted book. In other words, sometimes I want to read a book that is ridden with cliches, where a happy ending is guaranteed, where the book is predictably lighthearted and sweet, because, sometimes, reading these books aren’t a sin, but are a means of necessary escapism. There are times when I want to be challenged intellectually, but sometimes, I want to allow myself these brief moments of simple gratification.

I hoped¬†The Truth About Forever¬†would be that book for me, and it was — and then some.

The Truth About Forever is my first realistic chick-lit book in years and also my first Sarah Dessen book ever. After reading The Truth About Forever, I think I will now be more inclined to read more from the genre. This book delivered on the easy-to-read, lighthearted front, but it was also unexpectedly grounded, sensitive, and sweet.

Dessen knows how to write a compelling story. However,¬†Wes as a mysterious, romantic interest didn’t really pique my interest. His character development hinged on being an enigma to both the reader and Macy, with other characters giving hints to his character. Instead,¬†I was so much more interested in Macy’s personal development and her expectations¬†to be perfect for her mother, who struggled to cope with the¬†grief of losing her husband. I empathized with Macy’s interpersonal conundrum – to be that rock for her mother and live up to everyone’s expectations of¬†her, or try and find her own path of self-growth. Something about that really resonated with me, and I enjoyed that aspect of the narrative from beginning until end.

Whilst I enjoyed this book for what it was, I felt emotionally detached from this novel and its characters. Reading this book was more like watching something unfold with impassive curiosity, rather than being involved with its developments and buildup. This was particularly true for¬†Macy and Wes’s relationship. There was no substance to Macy and Wes’s relationship, aside from the fact that they are honest with¬†each other because of a Truth game they play and the fact that Wes is extremely attractive (note, we are reminded repeatedly how attractive Wes is throughout the novel). Furthermore,¬†why does Wes like Macy? The reader gets an inkling of why Macy likes Wes, but aside from the fact that Macy is the main character and therefore the recipient of love interest’s attraction by default, I will never know why. One perspective is not enough for me.¬†If I cannot see how and why¬†two characters like each other, then how can I ascertain the depth of their relationship?

After giving it further thought, I feel like the delivery on all corners of this book Рplot, characters, secondary characters, dialogue, and so on Рwas well-done but not fantastic. Each facet of the book is written adequately, but just enough to be good enough. The plot was unoriginal but comforting in its familiarity; Macy was not as memorable as main characters ought to be, but she was written with some care and her emotional and interpersonal obstacles explored; and the supporting characters were sweet and funny, but at times were more like facades of complex human beings. Everything in the book felt like it had the capacity to become something more, but the outcomes were muted, subdued.

However, to go back to why I set out to read this book in the first place —¬†The Truth About Forever¬†satisfied that need, though the ending left so much more to be desired and ended too abruptly.¬†Nonetheless, for what it is, The Truth About Forever¬†is a lighthearted and comforting read. I will, however, give more of Sarah Dessen’s books a go in the future. I did enjoy her writing; perhaps¬†The Truth About Forever¬†was just not for me.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Truth About Forever
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Penguin Group