Tag Archives: Dystopia

L: Review of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

I think most people have at least one book, if not many, that have taken up permanent residence on the TBR shelf. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books for me. It’s like when people move to a town for school/work/family thinking “oh I’ll just be here for a year or two” and then suddenly 10 years have gone by and you are registered to vote there. Handmaid was a registered voter on my TBR shelf, not because I was avoiding it, but mostly because there was always something higher on the list, more urgently in need of my attention. But nothing rearranges one’s TBR list like a school assignment, so Handmaid finally got her day in the sun!

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…

I’ve read a lot of dystopic literature; dystopias got really popular within the last few years, what with the recent revival (pun intended) of zombie lit. However, as scary as the idea of zombies can be, what’s scarier to me is the thought of things that could actually happen, like the downfall of society and the oppression of women back into subservient roles. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale was a truly disturbing depiction of the possible demise of America and the freedom that we all take for granted today.

The book begins… slowly. Details are secreted away and gradually worked into the story through flashbacks and memories. Offred’s former life sounds as though it was pretty typical by today’s standards, but the power and oppression of the new government have changed her daily reality into a test of her possible contribution to society. She is one of the few women (after some radiation episode) who may still be fertile; she can either produce a child for the master of her household, or she will be sent away, likely to her death, since he has proven her lack of ability and worth.

I will not turn this post into a rant on women’s rights. Atwood’s ability far outreaches my own, so just read it yourself. Suffice it to say, however, that she manages to show how fragile our security in our freedom could be, and how it really only takes fear and violence to reduce people to a status that we currently think impossible. Atwood makes readers think about the dangers of blindly following orders, the risks in challenging those orders, and the necessity for basic human rights and freedom. As is to be expected, many of the characters are loathsome, while others are “reminiscent” of the freedom of speech and personality that people enjoy today. This was one of those books that had my emotions riding roller coasters; there were few moments of joy, but there was plenty of intrigue, fear, anger, manipulation, and mystery. By no means is this a “feel good book;” I doubt I’d even recommend it as a summer read, since the book just feels grey. However, the lack of bouncy playfulness does not equal a lack of meaning, so do yourself a favor and read it.

Now, it is worth noting that when reading a book of my own choosing, my rule of thumb is that there are far too many books to waste time on one I don’t like, so I give it 50 pages to snag me. I kid you not, this book did not interest me until page 134. After that, it was unexpected, thought-provoking, challenging, uncomfortable, hopeful, and profound. While the first 134 pages took me days of self-motivation and boredom, the remainder of the book took 1 day of utter fascination. It started on an express train towards 1 star and suddenly and surprisingly earned itself 4 stars. If you can make it through the first part, you’ll be rewarded with the second part.

Regardless, this is a valuable read. Not only is it a “classic,” but it is as relevant today as it has ever been, what with the upcoming electoral candidates. Yipes. This would be a great book for a student interested in feminism or politics, and might do well paired with other political dystopic texts, like 1984 or The Time Machine. I will absolutely have this one in my classroom!

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L: Review of Wendy Spinale’s “Everland”

I don’t read a lot of re-tellings, so when Wendy Spinale’s Everland was in a stack of ARCs my professor had received from Scholastic for our class to review, I did not reach for it. Somehow, it followed me home, nonetheless, so I decided to give it a chance.

Forget the story of Peter Pan you know. Because in Everland, the only way to grow up is to survive.

London has been destroyed in a blitz of bombs and disease. The only ones who have survived are children, among them Gwen Darling and her siblings, Joanna and Mikey. They spend their nights scavenging and their days avoiding the ruthless Marauders — the German Army led by Captain Hanz Otto Oswald Kretschmer.

Unsure if the virus has spread past England’s borders but desperate to leave, Captain Hook hunts for a cure, which he thinks can be found in one of the survivors. He and his Marauders stalk the streets snatching children for experimentation. None ever return. Until the day they grab Joanna. As Gwen sets out to save her, she meets a mysterious boy named Pete. Pete offers the assistance of his gang of Lost Boys and the fierce sharpshooter Bella, who have all been living in a city hidden underground. But in a place where help has a steep price and every promise is bound by blood, it will cost Gwen. And are she, Pete, the Lost Boys, and Bella enough to outsmart Captain Hook?

The names of the characters were the main tip-of-the-hat to the original story of Peter Pan. Some of them were obvious; it took very little effort for me to be like “ah yes, Mikey is Michael and Pete is Peter” et cetera, et cetera. Some of the other ones, while still glaringly obvious, were more subtle. Wendy became Gwen and the brother, John, needed to be female, so he became Joanna. Even Hook was still Hook, but it was a nickname for some four-part, uber German name.

When I started reading the book, the names were an irritation; it felt forced, as though the author was coddling the readers, reminding us not-so-subtly that her novel was an homage to the classic story. However, I have to admit that the names grew on me as the story progressed, since Spinale’s story was so vastly different from the classic. Without the inclusion of the names, the story would have shared the same central idea (the power of youth and the need to preserve it), but I’m not sure that the average reader would have noticed the parallel stories, nor the homage being paid to the classic.

Otherwise, the novel was quite interesting and well written. Since it was an ARC, I spotted a few editing errors here and there, but the writing was smooth, making the reading effortless. It was a quick read, not only because it’s short, but also because my interest was piqued throughout. The characters were developed into believable, sometimes likable, sometimes hatable teens. The main character was female, and I do feel as though the story leaned heavily towards female readers; it’s all about Gwen’s responsibility, Gwen’s mission, and Gwen’s unsurprising crush on Pete. Also, there’s a fairy on the sparkly gold cover, so… yeah. Having said that, though, the vast majority of the characters are male, there’s a cool, underground haven that boys will love, and there is a fair amount of murder most foul, crocodiles behaving badly, and guns that seem to call out to male readers (and females, I love that stuff).

Spinale managed to take an old, familiar story and turn it into something new and exciting. The main characters are teens and they go through a lot of friendship, relationship, and family trials that could be helpful for student readers who may be enduring the same things. Also, it’s entertaining! I’m giving it 3 Stars on the Lindsay scale, but 4 on the classroom library scale. I wouldn’t hesitate to put this into a few students’ hands!

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L: Review of Pierce Brown’s “Golden Son”

I have officially been labeled a disturber of the peace due to my… expressive reactions while reading Pierce Brown’s second installment in his Red Rising Trilogy, Golden Son. In spite of my better judgement, I needed to read this book in public. I knew it would solicit gasps, giggles, and tears, the likes of which I generally try to keep on lock when in public, but I was addicted to this book and what was to become of my beloved character friends from Red Rising. Just last night, I was reading my book over here, the boyfriend was reading his book over there, and I hit a MAJOR plot twist that evoked this response: “*gasp*… what? wait, WHAT?? Oh my god… whatohmyGODOHMYGOD!! WHAT?!?!? *maniacal laughter*.” The boyfriend just stopped to watch me react and process the info that had just rocked my world and, when I had calmed down to just soft murmurs of disbelief, he went back to his book, just like the random strangers I had been interrupting all week. This book is WORTH disturbing others.

Let us endure the boring part:

Golden Son continues the stunning saga of Darrow, a rebel forged by tragedy, battling to lead his oppressed people to freedom from the overlords of a brutal elitist future built on lies. Now fully embedded among the Gold ruling class, Darrow continues his work to bring down Society from within.

That’s distressingly short, don’t you think? And it has to be, considering the aforementioned dilemma of reviewing a subsequent volume in a series without spoiling the first book. This book, though, you guys, is out of this world and no dust jacket synopsis can adequately encapsulate that fact.

Whereas the first volume reflected elements of The Hunger Games Trilogy, with Darrow entering into a “game” for the entertainment of the upper class, even when his life and the lives of those he loves will be determined by his success or failure. However, in Golden Son, Darrow has now left the Institute and has entered into the world of politics. In my opinion, all hints of The Hunger Games have faded and been replaced with an essence of GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series. In the most flattering way possible, Brown echo’s Martin’s elements of political intrigue, familial bonds and betrayals, and the social divide enforced within the caste system. The similarities are subtle enough to be a mere tip-of-the-hat to Martin, not a blatant copycat. I have no idea whether Brown intended to emulate aspects of Martin’s series, but having read both, the similarities are clear to me.

Brown has achieved something that, to me, is a rare gift: a second volume that blows the first one out of the water! His writing is effortless, picking up where he left off in book one and including reminders of the previous events that are subtly worked into the story line, not uncomfortably forced in for reminder’s sake. The language is beautiful and evokes powerful opinions, forcing readers to take sides, pick favorites, and yearn for certain outcomes. I am emotionally invested in these characters and they immediately stand alongside my life-long favorites, the Potters, Bagginses, and Starks. Brown readily elicits emotions like victory, defeat, sorrow, hope, joy, and longing from his readers, meaning that I had to consistently remind myself that what I was reading was fake, not my life, and I needn’t feel so strongly, but I did, and still do.

5 stars. Hands down. No question. Golden Son is an undeniable success, appealing to all ages, sexes, races & creeds. I already got two friends addicted to the series, and you’re next!

Goodreads tells me the third volume, Morning Star, is expected to be published in early February. That cannot possibly come soon enough!

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L: Review of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”

I love Huey Lewis and the News. It is physically impossible for me to refrain from dancing while listening to “Power of Love.” However, my father used to make fun of “The Heart of Rock & Roll” because he said that it seemed like the purpose of the song was to list as many cities as possible so that everyone hears the shout-out to their city and thereby likes the song. I’ll go ahead and admit that I am more inclined to like a song that fondly mentions Atlanta, or “A-town.” So, by including shout outs to as many cities as possible, Mr. Lewis is ensuring that his song is enjoyed by as many residents of as many cities as possible. Smart move, Huey. Smart move. Having said that, I feel like Ernest Cline was replicating this “mass appeal” idea in his novel Ready Player One.

Let us get the obvious task out of the way:

Click here for Goodreads

Click here for Goodreads

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune — and remarkable power — to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved — that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt — among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life — and love — in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

This novel has a cult following, which is why it has been sitting on my TBR list for years. However, I did not love this book, especially not with the ferocity with which others seem to love it. My number one qualm with the novel was the Huey Lewis-esque mass appeal aspect, which was less “city shout-outs” and more “make every 80’s reference possible.” I’d say about 50% of Ready Player One was 80’s pop culture references, 40% was straight up info dump, and 10% was action. While I did love the connection to 80’s culture (he mentioned Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” within the first two pages and that is MY JAM, so I was immediately on board), it struck me as Cline’s attempt at mass appeal, naming as many 80’s pop culture movies, TV shows, songs, video games, etc. as possible so that if readers didn’t get one reference, they might get the next one, or the next one. It didn’t take long for my impression to go from, “he’s just trying to include everyone” to “oh, he’s just using this book to display his vast knowledge of 80’s culture.” It became frustrating; he’d often name some obscure cult classic but not explain how it related to the events in the novel. Cline quickly became that “friend” that everyone has that prides himself on his vast amount of “trivia knowledge,” who finds excuses to pepper the conversation with irrelevant info, just to show everyone that he knows a lot of things about a lot of things. YES, THANKS, WE GET IT!

One of the issues with sci-fi literature is that a good bit of time has to be dedicated to “world building” or setting the scene and updating readers on the backstory of the novel. There is a fluid way of incorporating this info; read The Martian and you’ll see what I mean. Cline did not achieve that. A large portion (40%, by my earlier estimate) of the book is Info Dump City. I’m talking about pages upon pages describing the minutiae of Wade’s world. His neighborhood, his hideout, his avatar, his avatar’s clothes, his video game console, gloves, goggles, chair, etc. are all described in painful, paragraph-consuming detail. I eventually learned to scan paragraphs for irrelevant details, so that I could skip the 4 paragraphs in which Cline describes the front door of Wade’s apartment.

If you can sift through the mounds of “info overkill” and ignore the millions of obscure 80’s references, the events of the book are quite unique and interesting. I like that Cline was able to focus so strongly on “geek” culture that not being nerdy enough became a disadvantage for readers. In this novel, the nerdier you are, the cooler you are. I LOVE that idea. I have always considered myself nerdy (see any of my countless LOTR references for examples), but I was so not nerdy enough to get all the geek culture shout-outs in this book, and I felt left out. It’s about time that the nerds get to be the “in crowd,” so I didn’t mind that most of it went over my head. However, I could tell that I was not the intended audience. I don’t doubt that if I were a teen aged, geeky, socially awkward, video game-loving boy, I would have liked this book far more than I did as my current self.

As it is, I’m giving it 3 stars. It was just okay. I won’t read it again, but I won’t deter anyone from reading it. Another one bites the dust (80’s reference!!).

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Love This? Try This! – 1984 Edition

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Click here for Goodreads page; V for Vendetta image credit to dragaonegro.deviantart.com

Why do we keep reading “the classics”? What a dumb question! Among many other reasons, we keep reading them because everything that comes “after” is influenced by what came “before,” whether it acknowledges it or not. If you buy into the notion that “history repeats itself,” we have a valuable window into our futures that can be accessed by looking at our pasts, and this is rarely more obvious than in George Orwell’s novel, 1984. The consistent relevance of this novel remains unnervingly apt to this day.

Poster available at Amazon.com

Click here for Amazon.com poster

1984 is a work of fiction, written in 1949, that speaks of the (then) future as a dystopian society oppressed by the government and lured into a state of perpetual obedience by threat of death. I live in the United States, a country full of opinionated, suspicious, self-empowered people, none of whom can I picture being easily wrangled into submission by the government, as is the case in Orwell’s novel. However, improbability does not equal impossibility, and equipping individuals with knowledge about the power and influence of the government is pivotal to our longevity as a democracy.

Poster available at Amazon.co.uk

Click here for Amazon.co.uk poster

Many versions of this “cautionary tale” have raised societal awareness (and paranoia) since the 1950’s, and my favorite was the movie, “V for Vendetta.” Paired alongside 1984, many parallels can be found and used to show individuals and students the timelessness and eerily accurate predictions of the future in Orwell’s novel. The repetition of the government slogan, the monitoring of the police, the curfew, the altering of facts in the media, etc. are all evident in “V for Vendetta,” similar to the way we see them in 1984. Clearly, the fears of Orwell in 1949 are still scary all these years later.

It’s an amazing movie and, when paired together, only heighten the meaning and the timelessness of Orwell’s classic novel.

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L: Review of Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven”

I had lots of nightmares last night.

Yesterday was my day off and, consequently, I spent the day reading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven. Right now, you might be jumping to the conclusion that I disliked the book, what with the nightmares and such. Au contraire, mon frere. I had nightmares because the subject matter is just a tad intense and I have a serious problem with projection. Thus, if I spend the entire day reading about a twenty-something, knife-wielding, Shakespeare-loving girl who survives a horrific disease that wipes out 99% of the Earth’s population, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be said heroine in my dreams but, unfortunately, even in my dreams, I’m a total spazz and can’t survive the apocalypse.

Click Here for Goodreads Description

Click Here for Goodreads Description

Mandel’s novel is a quick read; it’s one of those books that could easily be consumed in one day, and likely will be, since once you start reading it, you’ll be hard-pressed to get yourself to put it down for some waste of time, like sleep or nourishment. As mentioned earlier, most of the book happens from the perspective of Kirsten, who is one of the “lucky” few who somehow avoids catching the Georgian Flu. I put “lucky” in quotation marks because the book masterfully makes readers wonder whether it would be best to survive only to face conditions we find unfathomable here in 2015 or to just die with the rest of the world. At one point, there is a list of things that no longer exist in the post-civilization world and, while at first it seemed obvious and unnecessary, the list kept going and going, listing things we rarely even remember to be thankful for, and to such an extent that readers are forced to face the magnitude of the situation at hand and the unbelievability of such a life.

Much of the novel focuses on Arthur Leander, an actor who bookends our experience of the catastrophe and is dissected throughout the novel; I read Arthur as a representation of the majority of readers: a well-intentioned but self-absorbed member of the 21st century who misses the end of civilization but, by existing before the end and contributing to the lives of others, remains an ongoing part of the new world. Kirsten is motivated by her desire to find more to life than mere survival, and is forced to defend herself and her friends (and the rest of the world’s remaining inhabitants) from the tyranny of those who seek to force their beliefs on others, as well as control and manipulate in order to serve their needs and desires.

This book can easily fit in the the “YA” category, so I attempted to read it not just for pleasure, but also with a perspective of potentially teaching it to students one day. It’s interesting to see how many lessons can be learned, and taught, with this book: the obvious critiques of technology dependence, our fascination with celebrities, and overzealous religious cult mindsets; our lack of appreciation for the many overlook-able blessings of the modern world; finding joy in literature and art can bring light in dark times; life is too short to do anything but that which you love. I’m excited to see what my future students get out of it and how I can use current books like Station Eleven to grab the interest of a larger number of students!

I’d love to know what everyone else thinks and don’t forget to read Hannah’s review if you want to know what both Shrews think!

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