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angpent

Angel's Book Reviews 2.0

I already have a Goodreads account and a Tumblr book blog. I'm still not sure how I could use this platform fully, so, until further notice, this will be just backup, nothing more.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot 79. THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, BY REBECCA SKLOOT

Recommended by Michelle.

This book should be obligatory reading for all biology-related students and researchers. Being a med student myself, I can safely say I’ll probably be a better professional for reading it.

I knew, of course, about the HeLa cells. I even knew, on some level, that they came from a black woman; but, like so many others, it had never truly hit me that they came from a real person. As scientists, we have to emotionally distance ourselves from our patients and research subjects. It’s important and necessary, both for us and for them, that we do so, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to perform our function, but quite often we lose track of what we’re doing.

It’s also important to never forget that horrible things have been done in the name of science. Most of them are not in the distant past, either. Scientists are not magical creatures immune to bigotry and social pressure, the work we do will always reflect the way we think and the society we’re immersed in. So, even while keeping our “distance”, there should always be a point where we stop and think of these “subjects” as people; try to understand how what we’re doing affects them.

This is a very well constructed book. It’s not hermetic by any means, I’m sure people who don’t have a background in science wouldn’t have any problem following it. She explains scientific concepts clearly and concisely. It’s also worth noting that it’s not boring or obvious if you do have a background in science; those explanations are quick and straight to the point. She states the humane part of the story very eloquently, not losing any of the emotional impact because of the science part.

Her afterword is also very interesting, talking about “tissue rights” and bringing all that history to the present. We’re not exempt from our flaws, and questionable behavior is not a thing from the past.

Up next: A House Divided, by Pearl S. Buck

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd 74. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, BY SUE MONK KIDD

Recommended by Michelle, my most prolific recommender! I’ll probably spend a while reading the books she recommended. At least so far I’ve been enjoying them, so I’d recommend her recommendations…

Synopsis: Lily Owens is a 14 year old girl who has lived her life with an abusive father and the haunting knowledge that she was responsible for her mother’s death. When her stand-in mother, Rosaleen, is arrested and threatened, Lily finds the impulse she needs to escape home and go in search for her mother’s past. She ends up in a beekeeping farm, with three very special ladies.

Overall enjoyment: It was sweet and pleasant to read. Not the most original novel I’ve ever read, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Plot: It’s a coming-of-age story with nice undertones of feminism. It’s a bit naïve; considering the story is set in the 1960s, in the South of USA, in the middle of racial conflicts and with black characters, I would have expected there to be much more conflict and for the racial aspect to be much more important than it was.

Characters: They could have been better developed. Lilly has a very interesting voice, very well done, but the other characters are a bit flat… Many of them are quite stereotyped (Rosaleen being the “angry black woman”, August being the “magic Negro”, Zach Taylor being the “young angry activist” and so forth) but it’s not just the black ones, Lilly’s father is also very one-dimensional. It could be chalked up to how Lilly sees the world, though, since she’s the one telling the story.

World/setting: It has a much smaller importance than I expected. There is a background of racial tension, but in the end it’s very minor, with few consequences or complications.

Writing style: I always cringe a bit when I see that the narrator of a book is supposed to be a young girl; in my experience, writers tend to fail miserably when trying to produce a young girl’s voice. In this book, however, I think she was very successful.

Representation: Most of the characters are black.

Political correctness: Even though equality is really not the main theme, she does manage to include some discussion about it, and it’s a lot less heavy-handed than it could have been. The sorority she creates, with women who worship the Black Mary almost paganistically, is delightful, but a lot more heavy-handed on feminism. (Just to be clear, I have no problem with heavy-handed feminism; in fact, I often think media that is considered feminist is too light-handed.)

Up next: Servant of the Bones, by Anne Rice

Ariel

Ariel - Sylvia Plath 77. ARIEL, BY SYLVIA PLATH

Recommended by Lúcia Ramos.

I’m really not a great fan of poetry. Also, as I’ve already said many times, English is not my first language. I’m much better at reading and writing than I am at listening and speaking. Poems depend a lot on rhythm and sound, so no doubt that makes a big difference when you’re reading them.

Because of that, I really don’t feel capable of reviewing or rating this book. I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. I liked most of the poems in here, and they’re very variate; they for an interesting picture of the person who wrote them. More than that, I couldn’t say… So I’ll just leave it at that.

Up next: Tainaron, by Leena Krohn

Death in a Strange Country

Death in a Strange Country - Donna Leon 71. DEATH IN A STRANGE COUNTRY, BY DONNA LEON (Book 2 of Commissario Brunetti)

The second installment in the Commissario Brunetti series.

Synopsis: A young American man is found dead, floating in one of the canals of Venice. Brunetti is called to investigate, and in the process he ends up unearthing a much larger conspiracy.

Overall enjoyment: Sweet and fun, in spite of the dark theme. To be honest, what I really love about this series is the characters’ lives and their relationships; the mystery itself is secondary to me.

Plot: A nice mystery, even if the ending is a bit unsatisfactory.

Characters: I love that Guido has a happy and fulfilling relationship with his family, that is so hard to find in mystery novels! And I’m in love with their day-to-day lives.

World/setting: She writes Venice amazingly well. Not only the descriptions of the city and the food, but the culture and politics as well.

Writing style: Straightforward and pleasant to read.

Representation: Not much in this book, but she did better in her first one, so she still has some credit.

Political correctness: She raises some interesting issues on ecology and politics, even if they’re not resolved.

Up next: The King’s Curse, by Philippa Gregory

The Last Rose

The King's Curse - Philippa Gregory 72. THE KING’S CURSE, BY PHILIPPA GREGORY (Book 6 of The Cousin’s War)

This is the latest (but maybe not the last) installment in The Counsin’s War series. I read the previous books, of course (otherwise I wouldn’t be reading this one), but many of them more because I wanted to finish the series than because I really wanted to read them. In fact, I disliked most of them, The Red Queen being the exception, and even then more because I was fascinated with the historical figure of Margaret Beaufort than because of Gregory’s literary capacities. I considered not reading this one, but I had already read five other books, I might as well read another one.

Synopsis: Told from Margaret Pole’s point of view, the book tells the story of King Henry VIII’s life, from his childhood to his death.

Overall enjoyment: Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know if it is because I read the other books one after the other, but waited almost a year to read this one, but it seemed much better than the rest. I still wouldn’t go as far as to say this is a good book, since most of the problems that made me dislike the previous books are still present in this one, but I have the impression they’re not as prevalent.

Plot: Like in the previous books, there is some frustration of expectation. She builds up suspense for a particular event, like a battle, for instance, and she raises the stakes immensely, but then she brushes it aside without a conclusion, just making a note, in passing, that her son came back. If she didn’t want to give the battle importance, she shouldn’t have raised the expectations; if Margaret only cared about her son coming back, then then the suspense should have revolved around her son’s life and not the battle’s political consequences. Gregory is also a big fan of having her characters talk about crucial plot points as a way to make them clear to the reader, and I’ve always found that infinitely annoying (although, once again, I had the impression that it didn’t happen as much as it did on previous books).

Characters: One thing that has really bothered me in this entire series is her bias towards the York family. Everyone from the York family is saintly good, with all the virtues: good looks, intelligence, honor, bravery. Everyone from the Neville/Tudor family is the polar oposite: ugly, stupid, coward, selfish, greedy. Even in The Red Queen, which was narrated from Margaret Beaufort’s point of view and, therefore, should have been more generous to herself and her family, you can clearly see this bias; she goes out of her way to make Margaret seem greedy, stupid and selfish. She’s always talking about “the York good looks”, the “York honor”, the “York honesty”; all the time implying that the other side of the family does not have any of those characteristics. These are real people, who actually existed, and yet they are completely unbelievable, both in their goodness and evilness. (Also, what does Gregory have against the Tudors, for Christ’s sake?)

World/setting: Throughout the book, you get the impression that she’s dumbing things down. That’s the only explanation for why she repeats things so much (she probably doesn’t expect her readers to remember them). Or why she insists on the Tudor-bad/York-good dichotomy (she probably thinks her readers couldn’t understand a more complex relationship). And she uses a very modern language in a book supposedly set in the 16th century. The costumes and traditions are also very modern. The story feels like a bunch of 21st century people playing medieval.

Writing style: WHY DO YOU HAVE TO REPEAT EVERYTHING 50 THOUSAND TIMES??? I AM PERFECTLY CAPABLE OF REMEMBERING THINGS! ESPECIALLY THINGS YOU’VE JUST SAID IN THE LAST PARAGRAPH!

Representation: Nonexistent, as you would have expected.

Political correctness: There is a lot that bothers me in here. She commits so many blunders in her Tudor/York dichotomy it’s even hard to keep track. She slut-shames shamelessly when talking about Anne Boleyn and other lovers Henry might have had. She’s incredibly disrespectful to Margaret Beaufort’s memory; I would have no problem with people saying she was greedy and selfish (although I would never say that, she just wanted power to herself, like men get, instead of being content with getting power through her husband, as would be accepted for a woman) but trying to imply she was stupid? REALLY?

And what is so wrong with a woman wanting to rule? Gregory seems to be absolutely against it. She vilifies Margaret Beaufort, and even invents a completely unnecessary scene where Katherine of Aragon reluctantly promises her husband (who she loves desperately, in spite of knowing him for less than 6 months) IN HIS DEATH BED that she will do all she can to be the Queen of England. So, the only justifiable motive a woman could have to want to be queen is if she promises her beloved husband? Otherwise she’s as despicable and greedy as she shows Margaret Beaufort to be?

And then we get a very long-winded Author’s Note where Gregory (repeatedly!) claims to be a feminist writer... Please.

Up next: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

The Luminaries

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton 70. THE LUMINARIES, BY ELEANOR CATTON

Another recommendation by mysamwise​! And I have to say, I liked this one much better... But we’ve already covered that. Onto this one!

Synopsis: Walter Moody, recently almost destitute and at odds with his family, arrives upon the shores of New Zealand hoping to make a fortune on the goldfields. By chance he stumbles on a gathering of twelve individuals discussing some strange occurrences and what they might mean. He is compelled to listen to their stories and to follow those happenings to their conclusion.

Overall enjoyment: It was really good! The story is pretty interesting, and she manages to pull off the formally rigid structure she proposes. That only starts becoming a problem towards the end, but it’s never a major one.

Plot: There are several stories, all interconnected. This part is very well done, in my opinion. She really manages to bring all those strings together and form a whole that makes sense from every angle you look. Personally, I thought those really short chapters towards the end were a bit unnecessary; she could have ended the book before without much loss of content. But then, she would probably have to stray from the form she proposed.

Characters: They are all very well constructed. The only one that doesn’t really feel believable is Francis Carver, who is regarded by everyone as the villain and is so universally feared and despised he feels like a fairy tale devil.

World/setting: New Zealand in the 1800s, during the gold rush. She did a really good job on creating atmosphere: a place where people who, in their original settings, would have been rigidly separated, are suddenly equal, and all the buildings and ventures are somewhat rushed and temporary.

Writing style: I do feel like she had some trouble with the form. Every chapter is exactly half the length of the previous one, and she tries to tie everything with astrological charts and references. I admire writers who can do this kind of thing, it must be incredibly difficult to do, but the first chapters are very long, with lots of exposition and description, and the last ones are very short, with chapter headers longer than the chapters themselves, and feel a bit unnecessary. The astrological references are not essential, either; all the elements are already there, they’re just reinforced by the charts and metaphors.

Representation: As would have been expected for a novel set in the 1800s in a gold rush, there are very few women, and mostly they are talked about rather than having a voice of their own. She does, however, give voices to both Maori and Chinese, which are characters that would have been prevalent at that time and place but would often be overlooked.

Political correctness: Considering everything else she had to worry about when writing this novel, she did a pretty decent job on this category. With Anna, she shows the dichotomy of angel/whore that women are so often subjected to; she comments on the treatment of Maori people; she comments on the treatment of Chinese people; she even manages to comment on the relativity of bigotry, showing Moody impressed (and even bothered) with the equality of the New Zealand society when seeing a white man lighting a cigar for a Chinese man even thought the Chinese man knows that society is not equal at all.

Up next: Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon

When Will There Be Good News?

When Will There Be Good News? - Kate Atkinson 76. WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, BY KATE ATKINSON (Book 3 of Jackson Brodie)

The third one on the Jackson Brodie series, and the last one I’ll be reading this year, to my great unhappiness. I didn’t expect to like this book so much; I liked the first two on this series, but not passionately. This one was a big leap up from them.

Synopsis: Joanna, a survivor from an attack that killed both her siblings and her mother is now married with her own child, and employs Reggie as her “mother’s help”. The man who attacked her family in the past is set to be released, which brings her in contact with Louise Monroe, previously met in One Good Turn. Her disappearance leads Reggie to Brodie, who has recently being involved in a train crash and is suffering from amnesia.

Overall enjoyment: I loved it. The prose is fantastic. It’s definitely not a classic crime novel, though. That might have been why I liked it so much more than the previous books: when I read them, I was expecting something different; when I read this one, I already knew what was coming and could fully appreciate it.

Plot: There are many smaller plots that combine to form a bigger picture. This joining is quite impressively done, she doesn’t leave any loose threads. There are many surprises, and the suspense is very well constructed. Once again, though, this isn’t a classic crime novel; there isn’t much investigating or mystery. It is much more about the characters and their relationships. Someone who is expecting a mystery would probably be disappointed.

Characters: I love how quirky and well developed they are. All of them feel real, with flaws and virtues. It was particularly interesting reading the interview with Kate at the end of the book, where she says she is always afraid that she doesn’t know how to write male characters; Brodie is such a masterfully created male character I would never have imagined it.

World/setting: Edinburgh, mostly. It permeates the story with an overarching bleakness, in the weather, in people’s personalities, in the buildings.

Writing style: She has an amazing turn of phrase, it’s delicious to read. She fluidly includes what the characters are thinking on the narration, and I love this style of writing.

Representation: Not very good for most minorities, but there are very few characters in total, so that might be overlooked. Most of her characters are female.

Political correctness: Something that I’m getting to see the more I read: if you take the time to make well-built, multidimensional characters, it’s very hard for you to make great blunders in political correctness. It could have been better if her characters were more diverse, though.

Up next: Ariel, by Sylvia Plath

Servant of the Bones

Servant of the Bones - Anne Rice 75. SERVANT OF THE BONES, BY ANNE RICE

Another recommendation from Michelle. She just said “Anne Rice”, I chose this one because it was a standalone and it had been in my to-read pile for ages. Once I started reading, I got the distinct impression that I had already read it… I didn’t remember anything of the story, but there were some particular phrases that I’m sure I had read before. I really don’t think this book was at all forgettable, but I’m probably lying, since apparently I did forget about it once already.

Synopsis: Azriel was a Jew living in the Babylonian empire until, after a double betrayal, he is sacrificed and incompetently transformed into a spirit who can be called forth by someone who has the knowledge necessary and the possession of his bones. He exists like that for many years, unable to remember his own history, until finally he is called and witnesses the murder of a woman. This involves him in the plans of Gregory Belkin, leader of a strange worldwide cult with a dangerous thirst for power.

Overall enjoyment: Like I said, I quite liked it. It was very imaginative, if not particularly well-written. (It wasn’t badly written either, just not especially developed)

Plot: This book is told as an interview, very similar to Interview with the Vampire. It has two distinct parts: in the beginning Azriel relates his own history, how he came to be and a resume of the masters he’s had since he became a spirit. In the second part, he tells the story of Gregory Belkin, how he became involved with him and his plans and what happened afterwards. There is a very clear conflict of tone between those two parts. They’re very different, and I’ve noticed that there is a tendency for people to like either one or the other. The transition between them could have been better done, and she could have linked them better. As it is, the second part, which has much more action and suspense, feels unnecessary and contrite.

Characters: Competently made, if not particularly worthy of note. Azriel is fascinating, all the others are very much secondary. As in all of the books by Rice that I’ve read, she puts way too much stock on physical appearance. Everyone has to be gorgeous. Now that I’m not a teenager anymore, I have to say that those endless and highly lyrical descriptions can get boring after a while.

World/setting: She does a very good job on transporting us to different periods of time as Azriel tells his story. By comparison, the second part, which is set on the (somewhat) present age, feels pale and uninteresting.

Writing style: Straightforward and easy to read.

Representation: This book has the homoerotic undertones that I’ve always loved in her writing. It is only an undertone, though, nothing explicit. Also, the last book by her I’ve read was quite a while ago (more than 10 years, I think), before I discovered feminism, and now I was shocked to see how few female characters she has. Plus, since I mentioned all her characters being gorgeous, I distinctly remember being 11 or so, reading one of her vampire novels, and concluding I would never get to become a vampire because I wasn’t pretty enough…

Political correctness: …which would lead me to conclude, now, that she does put way too much value on physical appearance. And her female characters are so secondary as to barely exist. They both die, one of them immediately, which fuels Azriel to find out who were her killers and why she was killed (refrigerator, anyone?) and the other one right after having sex with Azriel (for the first time without a master) and teaching him how to feel (ugh). Now that I think of it, this book (and probably her other books too, but I couldn’t say for sure since it’s been so long since I’ve read them) feels a lot like 90s fanfiction: lots of gay romance and attraction, but you’re not supposed to put women on the stories at all.

Up next: When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee 73. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, BY HARPER LEE

Actually, this one was recommended (rather non-voluntarily) to me by a creep on the internet who took offense at me wanting to spend a year reading books written by women. Unfortunately, I didn’t take note of his user name and don’t know how to get in touch with him again to thank him... As malicious as his comment might have been, this is indeed a very good book. It was further recommended by Michelle, so he doesn't get all the points for this.

English is not my first language, so I didn’t read this in school. My required reading was very different. I’m not absolutely sure I would have enjoyed it if I had read it as a child, but I tend to believe so. The prose is delicious, the characters are captivating, the story is adventurous.

I’m sure, this being such a famous and important book, that there are many reviews for it, and they must have discussed its elements quite thoroughly. That being the case, I’ll just save my words and simply say that I’ve enjoyed it and very much recommend it.

Up next: The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd

Tainaron: Mail from Another City

Tainaron: Mail from Another City - Leena Krohn 78. TAINARON, BY LEENA KROHN

Recommended by Tytti. This is quite a weird book, I don’t think the categories I’ve been using apply. It’s not a novel; there is no plot and very few characters (and their personalities matter very little). It’s mostly worldbuilding.

The book consists of 30 letters an unknown narrator sends to their lover. They have immigrated across the broad expanse of Oceanus to Tainaron, a city populated by insects. Each of these letters tell a bit about the city and contain some thoughts and impressions from the narrator.

I didn’t really like it, to be honest. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I like my books to have a plot, this was too philosophical and poetical for me. I have to admit, however, that Tainaron seemed fascinating; I would love to read a story (with a proper beginning, middle and ending) set in it.

Up next: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Apple Tree Yard

Apple Tree Yard - Louise Doughty 69. APPLE TREE YARD, BY LOUISE DOUGHTY

Recommended by Antonio. I read the blurb and it said it was about a geneticist on trial for murder and, for some reason, I assumed it would be a science fiction book revolving around the ethics of genetic experimentation. Pretty soon it became obvious that that was not the case... I didn’t dislike this book, but the frustration of my expectations probably influenced my reading.

Synopsis: Yvonne is a successful, renowned scientist, mother of two, and still married to their father. She has a very happy marriage, or as happy as could be expected, but she can’t help but feel attracted to and have an affair with a mysterious stranger who accosts her one day in the street. She forms a fantasized idea of what her lover is, and has to face the consequences of this misconception.

Overall enjoyment: It was OK. There were some very good parts, but there were also some mediocre-to-bad ones. All in all, it was fine.

Plot: It could have been better structured. I’m not sure how it could have been done, maybe with the use of flashbacks... The first and second part of the book are too different, almost disjointed. The first part is just background for the trial on the second part, but this background takes a lot more space than the trial itself so it feels like an anticlimax. And there was SO MUCH stuff that didn’t need to be there, like the detailed descriptions of the legal procedures, and ramblings that didn’t go anywhere and had no effect on the rest of the story. Also, she does reach sometimes... Many essential plot elements aren’t very likely, or at least she hasn’t made the motivation for them clear (or compelling) enough.

Characters: Unlike most of the reviews I’ve read of this book, I had no problem with Yvonne. She lived her life, achieved everything she wanted, in spite of the odds against her, and even managed to be a “good wife” in the patriarchal sense of the word while doing it. My impression was that she simply felt like she was entitled to some fun after all that. *spoiler alert* I don’t think she believed X; she knew very well that he was lying to her, but she wanted her fantasy to be true and decided to believe it anyway. Realistically, she couldn’t have known what consequences this would have. *end of spoiler* Obviously, I liked her characters, and thought they were well made, even if their motivations were a bit funky at times.

World/setting: Not really a major element. Mostly she just tries to show how exposed Yvonne and X are, but it’s really not that important.

Writing style: It was somewhat odd. I liked the narrating voice a lot, she seemed smart, funny, and reasonable, without being all-knowing and perfect. I especially liked how you can catch her self-deception in her subtleties; how you can tell she knows she’s lying to herself but doesn’t want to admit it. And there are some impressively good turns of phrase... But she has this awful quirk of revealing the plot twists a few paragraphs before they happen. She will either tell you outright or kind of prepare you for it, with phrases like “if I had known what was about to happen...” and stealing their punch. It felt like watching a movie with someone whispering spoilers on your ear ten seconds before they happen. It did contribute to making the narration sound like a person telling a story, but it was profoundly irritating. A really bad choice, in my opinion.

Representation: Not much, but there aren’t that many characters concerned in this story.

Political correctness: It is a story about rape culture. It has some really interesting takes on double standards and gender roles. In this sense, it’s very well done, and it really gets the point across.

Up next: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

The Lover

The Lover - Marguerite Duras, Barbara Bray 68. THE LOVER, BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I can’t remember who recommended this to me. Yes, I know, very rude of me; I should have kept a list, or something. If you’re reading this, I’m very sorry. Feel free to let me know who you are so I can apologize properly. The recommendation was very much appreciated, though.

Synopsis: A young French girl in pre-war Indochina, poor and with a very turbulent family life, has an affair with an older, rich, Chinese man.

Overall enjoyment: It was very well written, but very weird. It’s definitely not romance. (It’s also not erotica, I’m baffled as to why it is so often classified as that.) I have to say I did like it, but it’s not one of those books you “like” like. It’s not a very happy read.

Plot: It’s a bit difficult to follow sometimes. She shifts perspective constantly, jumps forwards and back in time wildly, goes from first person to third and even second without any warning. But this book is really not about the plot.

Characters: It is difficult not to compare Marguerite with the protagonist of this story. Their lives seem almost identical. In fact, I believe there are lots of people who believe this story is autobiographical. The characters sure are vivid enough to be real.

World/setting: Indochina, before it became Vietnam. It is a very important factor in the narrative; the people, the culture, the society, even the nature and climate play a big part on the developments.

Writing style: It’s like a stream of consciousness. I don’t usually like those very much, but this one was very well done. It has a very nice fluidity and speaks volumes about what is left unsaid.

Representation: Pretty fair. She includes the natives and her lover, who are all Asian, and she, herself, admits to being bisexual (though, of course, not in so many words).

Political correctness: It’s interesting to see how she portrays privilege in this. The protagonist may be very poor, wearing second-hand clothes and eating refuse, but she’s still considered by everybody (including herself) as better than her lover simply because she’s white and he’s Chinese. The account of the dynamic in her family is very dark and disturbing, touching many issues. A very interesting book, well worth the read.

Up next: Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood 67. THE HANDMAID’S TALE, BY MARGARET ATWOOD

Another recommendation from Michelle. Well, kind of, she just said Margaret Atwood; I’ve had this book on my to-read pile for some time now, and I thought it was about time I got to it.

Synopsis: In a dystopian future where Old-Testament Bible morality is law, strict rules control every behavior and women have become property. Because of a decline in fertility and scriptural precedent, Handmaids are given to men whose wives cannot conceive. Those are women whose only value is their fertility and whose behavior is closely and repressively controlled. Offred is a Handmaid who still remembers and misses her life before the Republic of Gilead.

Overall enjoyment: FUCK. ME. Why did I not read this book before? I’m still in shock over it. It was amazing, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not dated at all, it has such gruesome and fascinating hypothesis, it’s filled with symbolism and imagery... Without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Plot: Non-linear, but not hard to follow at all. Full of suspense, it really involves you in this repressive atmosphere. I especially appreciated the epilogue that explains many details that were left obscure, ties up all the strings and also allows the reader to distance themselves from the bleakness of the rest of the narrative.

Characters: Very well constructed. We only see the secondary ones through Offred’s eyes, but, even with this limitation, they are complex and real. Offred herself (love the play with words there, you can read her name as Of-Fred or as Off-Red) is incredibly real in her “averageness”. She’s not particularly weak or strong, heroic or cowardly, beautiful or ugly; she truly could be anyone.

World/setting: It’s a feminist nightmare and, perhaps because of that, so believable. Having read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis recently, I can’t help but compare the rise of Gilead with how she tells of the rise of the extremist Islamic state in Iran: in the space of a little bit more than a year, she was forced to cover up completely, boys and girls were segregated in school and given only state-approved educations, alcohol and cigarettes were outlawed and punishable by death. Gilead is not a far-fetched threat at all, neither is the speed at which events happened.

Writing style: I couldn’t stop myself from turning the pages. It’s very fluid and involving, almost intimate.

Representation: She covers up all the bases pretty well. Could be better, but then, it would probably be a different story.

Political correctness: Again, FUCK. ME. There’s so much, I wouldn’t even know where to start. In fact, I think I still need some more time to digest this book before I can fully appreciate it. The big picture is already fantastic, but the little details, the reactions and interactions, the differences in perspective... And I just can’t stop thinking, “why didn’t I read this book before?” Why didn’t I even know it existed until I was in my 20s? And I have always been a science fiction fan, I read all of the usually recommended “dystopian classics”, like 1984 and Brave New World; WHY WASN’T THIS BOOK AMONG THEM?

Up next: The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

The Red Tent

The Red Tent - Anita Diamant 65. THE RED TENT, BY ANITA DIAMANT

Recommended by Trisha Cook, on Goodreads. I am not very well versed in biblical knowledge, most of what I know I got by osmosis from books, movies, and other people, and that was probably a factor in my reading. The only thing I know about the famous rape of Dinah was that it happened (?) and then her brothers demanded everybody get circumcised (?) and then they killed everybody (?). So, as you can see, not a lot of knowledge...

Synopsis: It’s a fictionalized account of the women in the old testament Bible, centering on, and told by, Dinah.

Overall enjoyment: I liked it well enough. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had more knowledge of the original stories. The actual rape of Dinah went pretty much as I knew, but all the other stories on her family tree and what the men did were a mystery to me... And she doesn’t always clarify them, so I was quite often left imagining what happened. (No, not enough to actually read the bible, but thanks for suggesting.)

Plot: I suppose, if you have a better knowledge of biblical stories, you’d probably be able to appreciate it more than I did. Still, I liked it well enough. Not innovative, but solid. The first part was much better than the second, and the second, and the second was better than the third; so it could be said that the ending was a bit disappointing.

Characters: This was the best part, for me. They were exactly what I would imagine biblical characters to be. I love how she effectively cut any male off the story, turning them into ornaments, symbols, and metaphors for the feminine story (much like, as far as I know, happens to women in the bible--and in many other books, for that matter).

World/setting: It’s that famous Canaan-Egypt setting. Once again, I feel a bit inadequate to judge, knowing so little of how this is supposed to be. Still, I felt she did a good job constructing and relaying this world.

Writing style: It feels biblical to me, but, then again, who am I to judge? And, just like the plot, she writes better in the beginning than she does at the end.

Representation: Good enough, considering it’s essentially a bible story.

Political correctness: It’s a very feminine book, no doubt about it. It is a bit naïve in this femininity, though. This ideal, of all women together celebrating a Mother Goddess and leaving men alone to their business but all the while “knowing better” feels kind of outdated to me, like a 70s women’s commune. Not to mention, she repeatedly defines femininity with bleeding every month and having the ability to bear children.

Up next: The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu, Royall  Tyler 66. THE TALE OF GENJI, BY MURASAKI SHIKIBU

Recommended to me by Michele Ruedin, on Goodreads, although she did tell me she hadn’t read it herself.

This is supposed to be the first “true” or “modern” novel in existence. I’m not sure what “true” or “modern” are supposed to mean in this context, but I gather it is a very old and historically important novel. That has to be taken in account when reading this book.

I tried not to do a lot of research on this book, because I didn’t want this review to be a copy of some other text I might read, so all I learned about it is that it was written by a Japanese lady while she was in the empress’s court (and that not much else is known about it, anyway). I got the distinct impression that it was written in episodes. Maybe she started the story one day, and the other ladies were pleased, so eventually they asked her to continue and she did. There isn’t a real plot or even much of a connecting thread between the chapters. It even ends kind of abruptly, as if she could have continued on. I can imagine a woman telling this story to a captive audience of women, and all of them interjecting, smiling knowingly, and even guffawing, slumber-party-style, during this telling. That image is so enchanting I’m half in love with it.

The text is quite dated, I’m afraid. And it depends heavily on extensive knowledge of Japanese costumes, culture, and history during the period. I have some, probably more than the average person, but I have to admit I was often baffled as to motivations and happenings.

All in all, if you have a very specific interest in Japanese history, or the history of literature, this book would be essential. If you don’t, however, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Up next: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Death at La Fenice

Death at La Fenice - Donna Leon 63. DEATH AT LA FENICE, BY DONNA LEON (Book 1 of Commissario Brunetti)

Recommended by the delightful nous-contre-eux​ (Mimi). And it was a delightful read.

Synopsis: A world-famous conductor is found dead in his dressing-room in the middle of a performance in the biggest opera house in Venice. Guido Brunetti, vice-commissario, has to delve deep into the maestro’s past for the investigation.

Overall enjoyment: It was a very pleasant book to read. Not really a thriller, but a very good mystery. The pacing was slower and more relaxed than you usually find in the genre, and it plays right into the general atmosphere of the story.

Plot: Like I said, slow-paced, but not bad. There is some suspense but it’s not really the big focus. The mystery in itself, the whodunnit, is a bit naïve, but not the events leading to it.

Characters: Very satisfying. Atypically, Brunetti has a healthy relationship with his wife and a happy family life; that in itself is already a breath of fresh air.

World/setting: She describes Venice very vividly; it’s worth reading the book just for that. The little details on procedure and politics during the investigation add a special flavor to it.

Writing style: Clean and straightforward.

Representation: Not very good when it comes to POC (although there are some cameos), but there is a lesbian couple that is central to the story.

Political correctness: No major complaints here. The female characters are very interesting and play a big part on the story. If I had to criticize something, I’d say that it’s a bit too indulgent of the famously fragile male ego, but that’s probably nitpicking.

Up next: Down the Darkest Road, by Tami Hoag