Dystopian

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover of "The Handmaid's Tale," featuring two women in red cloaks and white bonnets standing near a tall brick wall
Image from Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Heterosexual sex (consensual and non-consensual), misogyny

Back Cover:

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…

Review:

I’m still not sure what to make of this book.

I picked it up because my fiance and I got Hulu and I wanted to read the book before I watched the show. It took me a while to work through, for no particular reason.

And it was … odd.

There really wasn’t a plot to speak of. Like, seriously. At first I thought it was just slow to start, but nope – I got all the way through it and there still wasn’t really a plot. But it’s okay, because it’s really the world that grabs you. It’s one of those things where you get off the bat it’s an oppressive regime, but it’s slowly revealed how horrifying it is, what life was like before, and how it suddenly changed (although it didn’t make completely clear why it changed).

And the world is horrifying. People of other religions (or varieties of Christianity that are’t the regime’s particular brand), doctors who performed abortions, gay people, and anyone else who doesn’t conform and obey are executed and hung on a wall for everyone to see. There are only a few options for women – if they aren’t wives of regime-approved men, they could be Handmaids if they were fertile, Marthas (who do all the housework) if they weren’t, or Aunts (who indoctrinated the handmaids-in-training)  if they were … I’m not sure what the qualifications for Aunt are. Women aren’t allowed to read or do much of anything – wives are allowed feminine pursuits like gardening and knitting, but not much else, and Handmaids aren’t allowed anything.

The details – and even the main ways society functions – fall into place slowly, bit by bit over the course of the book and even by the end I still felt like there were some things that I wasn’t aware of yet. It was beautifully built, engrossing, and enough for me to keep interested despite the lack of plot.

I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist world. This all made sense to me. I honestly didn’t realize how completely horrifying this would sound to other people until I started explaining it to my fiance, who was appalled that this would make sense to anyone, and extremely disturbed that there were fundamentalists who actually praised this as an ideal society. If you’re not used to religious fundamentalism (such as the Quiverfull variety), it’s going to be a horrifying introduction. If you are, it’s going to be eerily familiar and still horrifying.

Okay, we’ve gotten this far and I’m still not sure what I’m trying to say about this book. (Samantha Field, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote a great post on it that’s more eloquent than this one and I highly recommend it.) This is the kind of book you really have to read for yourself, because there’s no way you can get a sense of it just from a review.

UPDATE: The Hulu Show

I only watched a few episodes of it, because I wasn’t a huge fan. The show tried to include a lot more plot than the book, making Offred mostly interested in finding her daughter (not a huge thing in the book) and bringing in the underground resistance movement in the first episode (which wasn’t until later in the book, and Offred wasn’t all that involved). It also put events in a different order, which bothered me. It wasn’t a bad show and I understand why they made a lot of the choices they did (after all, it’s hard to make a show when there’s not much of a plot), but I think I’d have liked it better if I’d watched it before I read the book.

And as an aside, there were a surprising number of non-white Handmaids. Normally I’m all for diversity in media, but in this case it surprised me because racism is a major thing, especially in American Christian fundamentalism. Having grown up with a very similar breed of fundamentalism, it seemed unrealistic to me that the women of color weren’t all Marthas or exiles to the Colonies, viable ovaries or not.

Advertisements
Contemporary

Review: The Thursday Night Club by Steven Manchester

The Thursday Night Club by Steven Manchester
Image from Steven Manchester

Title: The Thursday Night Club

Author: Steven Manchester

Genre: Contemporary

Format: Ebook

Buy: Amazon Barnes & Noble Kobo

Back cover blurb:

Five college friends have been getting together every Thursday night to share humble meals and an abundance of laughter. But when tragedy takes one of them, leaving the others to question the fairness of life, the Thursday Night Club decides to embark on a contest in memory of the generous spirit of their fallen friend. The objective of the contest is simple: whoever performs the kindest deed by Christmas night wins the pot – four quarters. And there are only two conditions: the benevolent deed must be anonymous, and it cannot cost a single penny to pull off.

As the four friends undertake the contest, the healing begins and they become inspired beyond their expectations. There might be a winner in this competition, but it is very clear there will be no losers.

Review:

I picked up this novella on a whim – partly because it was short, and partly because I liked the concept of a “good deeds” competition. It took me a while to get around to starting it, but once I did, I devoured it in about an hour.

The Thursday Night Club is very short, bordering on short story length, so I can’t really say I got to know any of the characters really well. There were Kevin and Randy the pranksters and Jesse the slightly-less-prankster, all typical college guys, and Ava and Izzy, nice if somewhat bland girls.

The plot is pretty simple, and pretty well explained in the blurb. Surprisingly, the character who dies doesn’t die until about a third of the way through the book. The first third focuses on a prank war between the boys – which was okay, but was not what I signed up for (plus, I’m not a huge fan of pranks).

The good deeds competition, though, was awesome. I loved watching the four remaining friends figure out ways to help people and meet specific needs in their community. It made me want to go out and do something for people in my community. And there were some great life lessons on generosity and helping people, too. (And it was also kinda Christmasy, which made me happy since Christmas is so close.) I honestly wish that part had been longer.

I expected to enjoy this story, but I didn’t expect to love it – or to feel so inspired when I finished. It left me wanting to go out and do something like that with my friends. Or maybe just do something on my own. I recommend the read just for the story, but maybe once you’ve read it, you’ll be inspired to help people, too.

I received a free review copy of The Thursday Night Club from the author. His generosity in no way influenced, or sought to influence, this review.

Report Card

For more on my grading system, please see this page.

THE THURSDAY NIGHT CLUB scored a perfect 4.0

Classic, Science Fiction

Review: A Princess of Mars

Cover of "A Princess of Mars," featuring a nearly-naked man carrying a naked woman; they are standing above the corpses of several green aliens
Image from Loyal Books

Title: A Princess of Mars

Series: The Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs #1

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Genre: Science Fiction/Classic

Back Cover:

Suddenly transported to Mars, John Carter found himself captive of the savage green men of Thark. With him was Dejah Thoris, lovely princess of Helium. And between them and rescue lay a thousand miles of deadly enemies and unknown dangers.

Review:

This book has been on the bookshelves in the office for a long time (it came in a box of adult sci-fi and high fantasy books Dad got off eBay), but I avoided it because of the naked people on the cover. Then we got the movie John Carter on Netflix, and when I learned a really good movie was based off this book, I decided to give it a try.

I was surprised at how much I liked John Carter. He was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, then a gold prospector, but always a gentleman. (Having learned a lot about the Civil War recently from a pit stop in Gettysburg on my way to Washington, D.C., most men were gentlemanly back then.) He could fight (and he was good at it), but he was also kind, protective, and respectful.

Unfortunately, the other characters pulled pretty flat. Dejah Thoris was beautiful. Sola, the green woman assigned as John Carter’s servant, was peaceful for a green person. The rest of the green people were wild and violent. And … that’s about it.

The rescuing Dejah Thoris plot that is mentioned on the back cover? Dejah Thoris doesn’t even show up until halfway through the book. The first half is John Carter adapting to life as a sort-of prisoner of the green men and fighting his way up from prisoner to chief of sorts. Then Dejah Thoris gets captured, and since the green men and Dejah’s people are enemies, they decide to kill her. So about two thirds of the way through the book, John and Dejah escape.

The John Carter movie had a lot of similarities to the plot of A Princess of Mars. The movie producers didn’t follow the same timeline as the book and glossed over some parts, which made for a better movie. But the parts they skipped made for a better book. I loved John Carter’s time with the green men, and I highly enjoyed learning about their society. Of course, once they escaped, I enjoyed that, too.

The biggest thing that bothered me about this book was that clothes apparently don’t exist on Mars. Everything was done in the nude. Nothing is actually described, and it’s not awkward for the characters, but I just felt a little weird knowing that whatever is going on, everyone is naked. (On the bright side, the cover makes sense.)

Like a lot of classic books, the writing is a little dense. Despite being an action book, it’s still full of long paragraphs and heavy on description. For the most part, I didn’t mind (although I did find myself glossing over paragraphs here and there), but if you’re used to snappy action, this would certainly be a change of pace.

Did I enjoy this book? Yes. Will I be reading the other 10 books in the series? Probably not. Besides the fact that we don’t own the rest of the series, I think A Princess of Mars had a perfectly acceptable ending and see no reason to continue past the conclusion.

The Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs:

  1. A Princess of Mars
  2. The Gods of Mars
  3. The Warlord of Mars
  4. Thuvia, Maid of Mars
  5. The Chessmen of Mars
  6. The Master Mind of Mars
  7. A Fighting Man of Mars
  8. Swords of Mars
  9. Synthetic Men of Mars
  10. Llana of Gathol
  11. John Carter of Mars

 

 

Science Fiction, Suspense/Thriller

Review: Jurassic Park

Cover of Jurassic Park, featuring the silhouette of a t-rex skeleton on a white background
Image from Michael Crichton

Title: Jurassic Park

Author: Michael Crichton

Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller

Back Cover:

An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Creatures once extinct now roam Jurassic Park, soon-to-be opened as a theme park. Until something goes wrong…and science proves a dangerous toy….

Review:

I lost interest in dinosaurs in second grade, I’m not a big fan of adult books, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the Jurassic Park movie. So until it was a book club book, I had no intention of ever reading this book.

So, I want to mention characters, but I’m not sure which ones to mention. There’s Grant and Ellie the archeologists, Ian Malcom the mathematician (and my favorite character for reasons I’m not sure of), John Hammond who created the island, Hammond’s grandkids Tim and Lex, and various employees. All of them played an important part at some point or another, and I liked (or in some cases, hated) them all in varying levels. But none of them stood out as “I really liked him” or “she’s the main character.”

I was surprised that I enjoyed the plot. The movie missed a lot of details, which was sometimes a good thing but most of the time managed to keep me interested. And the rampaging dinos managed to keep my attention. Sometimes it wasn’t as thriller-y as I think it was supposed to be, probably because I didn’t care about the characters as much as I should have, but I still occasionally found myself hoping certain characters would survive (and sometimes that others would get eaten). There was a lot of gore at times, sure, but I’m not sure a book about carnivorous dinosaurs could have got away without it. Overall, I was happily interested.

My biggest problem with the book was that it got bogged down in scientific details every once in a while. I don’t care which isotopes they extracted to piece together the dinosaurs’ DNA. All I need to know is that it can be done. And as not a huge fan of chemistry or biology, I found most of the sciency stuff boring.

I didn’t exactly enjoy Jurassic Park, but I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t hate it. Do I plan on reading any more of Crichton’s books? No. But I don’t regret this read.

The Jurassic Park series:

  1. Jurassic Park
  2. The Lost World
Did Not Finish, Historical

Review: The Walking Drum

The Walking Drum book cover
Image from Shonari

Title: The Walking Drum

Author: Louis L’Amour

Genre: Historical

Back Cover:

Warrior, lover, and scholar, Mathurin Kerbouchard is a daring seeker of knowledge and fortune bound on a journey of enormous challenge, danger and revenge. Across Europe, the Russian steppes and through the Byzantine wonder of Constantinople, gateway to Asia, Kerbouchard is thrust into the heart of the treacheries, passions, violence and dazzling wonders of a magnificent time. From castle to slave gallery, from sword-racked battlefields to a princess’s secret chamber, and ultimately, to the impregnable fortress of the Valley of Assassins, Kerbouchard is on a powerful adventure through an ancient world.

Review:

I had not planned on reading this book. Louis L’Amour writes westerns, after all. But my dad told me that The Walking Drum wasn’t a western, and he liked it. My father and I have similar tastes in some books, so I decided to give it a try.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end up finishing it.

Mathurin Kerbouchard wasn’t exactly a bad main character. He was brave and daring and chivalrous, and loved to learn. My main problem with him was his problem with women.

It seemed that every five chapters or so, Kerbouchard fell “in love” with a new woman. They were together for a few chapters. Then they separated for one reason or another. Next thing I know, he’s come across another woman.

And for the most part, it seemed his romances were the main plot. Sure, I knew he wanted to find his father and get revenge on the guy who killed his mother. But he got his revenge before the halfway point, and at page 250, where I gave up, his quest for his father had just started in earnest. Page 250 was just over halfway through the book.

One thing I did like was the historical details. For the most part, they were worked into the story so it didn’t feel like the author was mentioning facts for the sake of mentioning facts. And they were actually interesting. I’d never really thought about this time period – I believe it was second-century Europe – before.

But overall, The Walking Drum was a super-long book with hardly any plot. I am not a fan.

Historical

Review: The Hessian

The Hessian book cover
Image from the LDL

Title: The Hessian

Author: Howard Fast

Genre: Historical

Back Cover:

When a troop of Hessians hangs half-wit Saul Clamberham, everyone living on the Ridge panicked. They call out the militia and ambush the Hessians, killing all but the drummer boy, who escapes. The ruthless and unrelenting hunt for the boy is on, but doctor Evan Feversham isn’t sure he wants to be involved. And when a Quaker family calls on him to take a bullet out of a Hessian’s back, he begins to doubt that the boy is really a threat. But if the terrified villagers get their hands on him, the fact that he’s sixteen and wasn’t a part of the hanging won’t matter…

Review:

I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up on my own. I don’t usually like historical novels, and this one didn’t seem to have much of a plot. But it was a book club book, and so I read it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it.

Evan Feversham, the narrator, was a wimp. He didn’t do much, rarely made a decision (to paraphrase his own words, “most decisions are best left to God”), and generally went along with whatever people wanted him to do. When it came to the Hessian, there are at least three scenes where he just laments to his wife about not knowing what to do. And he ends up doing nothing. At all.

Other than him, there’s a handful of characters that move in and out of the story – members of the Quaker family, so many of them that I can’t seem to keep track of them, even now; Abraham Hunt, the hotheaded jerk who led the hunt for the Hessian, the Hessian himself, who is semi-unconscious for two of the four scenes he’s in.

I was right in my judgment about the plot, too – there wasn’t much of one. Most of it was Evan Feversham trying to decide if he should turn the Hessian in or not. Maybe the main plot was his emotional journey? Either way, I was not interested.

This story is set in the Revolutionary War era (I believe just before, but I can’t be sure), and it reads like it was written back then – and not in a good way. It was dense and stodgy with a very old tone that reminds me of the kind of classic nobody reads.

Overall, this was seriously not my thing. Characters, plot, writing style…I wasn’t a fan of any of them. This is one of those books that you won’t miss anything if you decide to skip it.

Did Not Finish, Suspense/Thriller

Review: House

House book cover
Image from The Random Reads of a Brown Girl

Title: House

Author: Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti

Genre: Thriller

Back Cover:

When a strange accident leaves Jack and Stephanie stranded on a back road in Alabama, they seek shelter in the eerie Wayside Inn.  Also at the Wayside Inn are Stewart and Betty and their son, Pete, who run the place, and Randy and Leslie, victims of a similar accident and also stranded.  The four of them are victims of some backwoods pranksters, but they’re safe.  Or so they think.  They are in the middle of a killer’s game, and it becomes dreadfully clear when a tin can is tossed in with rules scratched on it.  Rule number two: He will kill everyone who comes to his house.  Rule number three: One dead body might persuade him to let rule number two slide.  One house, seven players, three rules.  Game ends at dawn.

Review:

This is one of those books I had the intention of picking up … sometime.  I’d enjoyed Frank Peretti’s Veritas Project books, and also Ted Dekker’s Skin, so I figured a book by them together would be good.  I finally ended up reading it when my mom wanted to know if she would like it.

And I didn’t even end up finishing House.

My absolute one and only problem was with the characters.  I hated them all.  Randy was a reckless hothead.  Leslie was a wimp.  Stephanie was a selfish brat.  Jack couldn’t take responsibility for his actions.  And the other three were certifiably insane.  Jack was the only character I even mildly didn’t mind, but I didn’t like him enough to finish the book.

House‘s main bad guy, I guess you would call him, was a very Dekker-esque psycho with delusions that he killed God, and he can kill anyone else who comes to this house.  The house itself was disturbing and had a mind of its own, and would rearrange itself to prevent escape.  The whole story had a creepy atmosphere – in my opinion, it’s more horror than anything.  Which automatically makes it something that I’m not going to be a huge fan of.

Honestly, even though I’m not a huge fan of horror and psychos aren’t really up my alley, but the house itself would have been enough to keep me reading – if I had liked any of the characters.  But, like I mentioned before, there wasn’t a one of them I wanted to spend a whole book with, let alone a book whose plot isn’t exactly the kind of thing I go for.

My main problem with House was me, not the book.  It strikes me as something that people who like horror/thriller books would enjoy.  It just wasn’t my thing.

High Fantasy

Review: The Glasswright’s Progress

Glasswright's Progress cover
Image from mindyklasky.com

Title:  The Glasswright’s Progress

Series: Glasswright #2

Author:  Mindy L. Klasky

Genre:  High Fantasy

Warning:  This review will probably contain spoilers of the previous book in the series, The Glasswright’s Apprentice.

Back Cover:

Two years have passed since the Glasswrights’ Guild was shattered.  Now, living in the palace of Morenia’s new king, Rani is determined to rebuild it.  But a betrayal from within snares Rani in a deadly plot to conquer Morenia.  The bloodthirsty King Sin Hazar has an army like none other – utterly dedicated, completely obedient…and entirely comprised of children…

Review:

After reading the awesomeness that was The Glasswright’s Apprentice, I raced to the library and snatched up this book.

But unfortunately, the sequel didn’t live up to its predecessor.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book.  But just liked.  Didn’t love, didn’t think it was awesome.  It was a good book, but it didn’t blow me away like The Glasswright’s Apprentice did.

My main problem was with Rani.  She just seemed … passive in this book.  She said she wanted to rebuild the Glasswrights’ Guild, but it’s been two years since book one and she hasn’t done anything.  As far as the book says, she didn’t even think about escaping the army camp – not until Mair discovered King Sin Hazar’s plans.  I’m not sure what her overall goal was in the book.  To get home, maybe?

Another problem was with the storylines.  In the beginning, the book alternates chapters with Rani and a woman named Shea.  And I enjoyed both storylines equally.  But when the two storylines meet, Shea just drops off the map, and Crestman, a secondary character from Shea’s storyline, takes center stage.  I can see why Mindy Klasky added Shea’s storyline, but I wish she’d either made it Crestman’s storyline or given Shea a bigger part in the second half of the book.

One thing I do love about Mindy Klasky’s writing, though, is her brilliance with settings.  I mentioned in my review of The Glasswright’s Apprentice how the amazing setting had a lot to do with why I loved the book so much.  And I think the amazing setting had a lot to do with making this book good.  The setting for the majority of the book was the country of Amanthea, which has its own geography, customs, and intricate caste system.  Especially in the middle, the setting was the best part.

This was a good book.  Not epic but not terrible, better than “meh” but not really great.  Just…well, good.  I’m not sure if I want to read book three, The Glasswright’s Journeyman, or not.

The Glasswright series:

  1. The Glasswright’s Apprentice
  2. The Glasswright’s Progress
  3. The Glasswright’s Journeyman
  4. The Glasswright’s Test
  5. The Glasswright’s Master
High Fantasy

Review: The Glasswright’s Apprentice

Glasswright's Apprentice cover
Image from mindyklasky.com

Title:  The Glasswright’s Apprentice

Series: Glasswright #1

Author:  Mindy L. Klasky

Genre:  High Fantasy

Back Cover:

Everything is measured by birth, and moving up in society is almost impossible.  That’s why Rani Trader’s merchant family sacrifices everything to buy her an apprenticeship in the Glasswrights’ Guild.  But being in the wrong place at the wrong time leaves Rani accused of the Royal Prince’s death.  Branded a traitor, Rani doesn’t know where to turn or who to trust – but she is going to clear her name.  Somehow.

Review:

I didn’t have high expectations for this book.  It was one of those I’m-grabbing-this-off-the-shelf-because-it-looks-slightly-better-than-the-other-books-in-the-adult-section kind of decisions.

And so I got my expectations knocked over and trampled on by the awesomeness that is The Glasswright’s Apprentice.  The book starts with a suspiciously angry instructor and a murder.  And it just gets better from there.

Rani was an interesting character.  Normally, she wouldn’t be the kind of character I would really like – I prefer characters a little spicier than her.  But somehow, Mindy Klasky managed to make me like Rani anyway.  I enjoyed following her as she tried to solve the prince’s murder (although her belief that her brother could do no wrong grated on my nerves sometimes).

Normally, this would be the point where I mentioned other characters.  But even though there were a lot of characters in the book, Rani was the only one in all of it.  So, moving on…

The way they did their names was really awesome – you could tell what caste somebody was by counting the syllables in their name.  One syllable was the Touched, the casteless people.  Two syllables were traders and merchants.  Three syllables were guilds-people.  Four syllables were soldiers.  Five syllables were noblemen and royalty.  Rani tended to jump castes during the book (am I the only person who draws the connection between Rani and Jair?  Maybe that’ll play out in future books).

Funny thing – the entire plot would not be something I would normally read.  First, Rani’s trying to find the instructor she suspects killed the prince.  Then she’s trying to keep her identity secret so she doesn’t get executed for the murder, and then she’s trying to find her brother.  But somehow, it managed to hold my interest for the whole 300+ page book.  I think the amazingly well-developed (and highly interesting) setting helped with that.

I did have one thing that bugged me – any time Mair or the other Touched showed up.  Not that I had anything against them, but they had a funny accent to their speech, and Mindy Klasky wrote it like it sounded.  Which meant a lot of apostrophes.  Which meant it was a whole lot slower to read than the rest of the story.

I loved this book.  Now excuse me while I go find book two.

The Glasswright series:

  1. The Glasswright’s Apprentice
  2. The Glasswright’s Progress
  3. The Glasswright’s Journeyman
  4. The Glasswright’s Test
  5. The Glasswright’s Master
High Fantasy

Review: Lightning’s Daughter

Lightning's Daughter book cover
Image from risingshadow.net

Title:  Lightning’s Daughter

Series: Dark Horse #2

Author:  Mary H. Herbert

Genre:  High Fantasy

Warning:  This review will most likely contain spoilers of the previous book, Dark Horse.

Back Cover:

Gabria’s magic may have saved everyone on the Dark Horse Plains from Lord Medb, but it did very little to change people’s opinions.  Now, the clans face another magical threat – Medb’s right-hand man, Branth, is learning magic.  Despite the clans’ hatred, Gabria must use her magic once again, and hope they don’t kill her for it.

Review:

I got this book for twenty-five cents at a used book sale – and practically the only reason I bought it was because it was the sequel to Dark Horse.

And overall, it was very similar to Dark Horse.  Gabria was the same, just a little older.  Athlone was the same, too, just with a little more responsibility.  And the two plots were just about the same, too.

Last book, the evil magic user was Lord Medb.  This time it’s Branth.  Either way, Gabria must fight a magical duel with the evil magic user to save the world.  The setting changed a bit in this one – a temple, the city of Pra Desh, the plains – but the plot was just about the same.

There was a love triangle thrown in there, but it seemed forced.  I never had any doubts as to which guy Gabria was going to end up with, and half the time, I felt like the romance was just there for the sake of having a romance angle.

This wasn’t unique or outstanding, but it was a quick, interesting read.  It wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t as good as Dark Horse.  It was one of those “meh” books that I could take or leave and not care either way.

The Dark Horse series:

  1. Dark Horse
  2. Lightning’s Daughter
  3. Valorian
  4. City of the Sorcerers
  5. Winged Magic