Available now in its first English translation, noted Italian author Romano Bilenchi’s The Chill is a stylish but detached coming-of-age story following an unnamed teenage narrator through a brief period in the 1950s in a small Tuscan town. The title comes from the chill that settles over the narrator as he reluctantly stands on the cusp of adulthood. Though the book is elegantly composed, a lack of personal connection with the characters leaves the story somewhat icy.
The death of his grandfather triggers the boy’s emotional transition. Forced to see life in a more mature and introspective light, the 16-year-old becomes suspicious and confused by the world around him. The following weeks and months present seemingly trivial events that are, to the boy and his emotional development, momentous. As egos develop where there once was playful naïveté, the boy’s group of friends dissipates. He, for the first time, experiences the disappointment that can come with love. He witnesses a darker and more vulgar side of humanity as rumors spread about his friends and family, and scandals sweep the small town. Overcome by feelings of isolation and nostalgia for the childhood that is slipping away, the narrator is unprepared to face these new and uncomfortable situations. He often craves the simplicity of youth that is now out of reach.
The boy is immature in many ways but also exceedingly introspective. Though unable to process his new and difficult feelings fully, he realizes the change in himself as he slowly grows into his role as a man. Bilenchi captures the essence of the character’s fears and reservations through the boy’s reflections and eloquently conveys his teenage angst:
More and more, I felt rejected by those I knew, and moments of isolation were frequent. The most painful sensation was one that hit me at night when I went to bed: I felt a sharp certainty that I was not as strong as others, was incapable of defending myself, of asserting myself, of alighting under the wings of those existences who, in their tranquil flight, seemed to cover all and make them equal, natural, and happy, whatever adversity befell them.
Bilanchi’s writing is clean and pared down so that every word is chosen carefully and not a single one is wasted. Because of this, a few short sentences can convey a mountain of emotion and implications. A careless or distracted reader could miss significant subtleties of the story by not approaching the book attentively. While the sparse language and lack of dialogue lends a stylish presentation to the book, it also results in emotional detachment for the reader. The narrator reveals very little about himself outside the year or so covered in the story and readers never develop a sense of attachment to him. By never even divulging his name, the boy remains a stranger throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, once the story ends, so does the character’s impression on the reader.
One aspect that is more memorable—or at least engaging—is the Tuscan countryside that Bilenchi so thoughtfully describes. A central component of the book, the scenery becomes a character itself and mirrors the narrator’s disposition. At times, the landscape impresses a sense of awe-inducing magnificence, with the remains of old castles and abbeys set against a background of fierce mountains. Sometimes it is a place for comfort and reflection amid the sunflower stalks. Other times it is ominous and sinister, with gray buildings jutting against the sky in hostility. As the narrator’s experiences and outlooks peak and valley, the Italian landscape comes alive. The striking landscape is a welcome element in contrast to a somewhat dull narrator and injects some desperately needed color into the imagery.
The coming-of-age story has been written countless times, in every generation, language, and style. The Chill breaks no new ground, nor does it offer a unique interpretation of the fall from innocence, but is still a worthwhile read—if only to appreciate the captivating landscape and Bilenchi’s graceful prose. His elegant but raw style conveys the sharp chill and loneliness the narrator feels, making this an appropriate read for a cold winter day. However, just as the seasons are fleeting, so will this book’s mark be upon most readers.(less)
Jeff Lindsay's writing style grated on me in books 1 and 2, but for some reason I didn't mind his unrelenting one-liners and alliteration this time ar...moreJeff Lindsay's writing style grated on me in books 1 and 2, but for some reason I didn't mind his unrelenting one-liners and alliteration this time around. I think that because I'm still on a Dexter high from having just finished the latest season of the TV series (which is superior to the books), I am overlooking a lot of book's flaws. Simply put, I enjoyed reading this book despite its problems.
In Dexter in the Dark, the voice in Dexter's head -- the one that urges him to kill -- suddenly disappears. As a wave of bizarrely ceremonial murders sweeps Miami, Dexter must solve the mystery to save himself and his Dark Passenger.
I enjoyed Dexter's introspection as he explored the origins of his Dark Passenger, but Lindsay's supernatural answer borders on the ridiculous. I am compelled to read the next book in the series to see if Lindsay drops the issue (hopefully).
My least favorite part of the series (which I fear will not be dropped any time soon) is the subplot of Astor and Cody's inner demons. I won't reveal any more for those who haven't read books 2 or 3, but I find the storyline disappointing and unnecessary.
Bottom line: the show is far superior, but the books are fun to read when you need a Dexter fix in the off-season.(less)
In her latest offering, The Year of the Flood, author Margaret Atwood presents what may be her most ambitious work to date. Combining a chilling dystopian landscape and dark satire with a subtly optimistic story of human resilience and female bonding, her new novel provokes readers to examine a possible future.
Part sequel, part companion piece, The Year of the Flood shares the same timeline as Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. The older novel introduced readers to a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by an environmental catastrophe, as seen through the eyes of a single human survivor. The Year of the Flood presents readers with three more perspectives to consider: those of Adam One, leader of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-religious organization intent on shunning modern conveniences and respecting nature in all forms; Ren, a child of the Gardeners who grows up to be a high-end sex industry worker; and Toby, a woman who joins the group to escape a lunatic stalker but eventually embraces the group’s tenets more than she realizes.
Atwood does an impressive job of expanding upon small details presented in Oryx and Crake and building a new story around them. Readers will recognize familiar faces, places, and names that may have been mentioned in passing in the first novel. The storylines are neatly intertwined and successfully embellished—no small feat, considering how involved the story becomes.
Through alternating chapters, Adam One, Ren, and Toby reveal the state of the world leading up to and including the environmental disaster—a plague which the Gardeners term the “Waterless Flood”—and expose more information about the circumstances under which such an event could happen. The setting is frightening, particularly in its realism. A dystopian landscape is an author’s vehicle to illuminate flaws in modern society, and Atwood highlights humankind’s neglect of nature and endangerment of its own species as she comments on familiar issues such as gene splicing, animal and plant extinction, biological warfare, religious extremism, ever-increasing consumerism, and misused technology.
Atwood takes the current state of the world and imagines the most extreme outcomes of current events, rarely, if ever, crossing into the territory of wholly impossible. In her extreme dystopia, instant gratification takes precedence over environmental responsibility, causing the ecosystem to suffer greatly. Gorillas and countless other species have become extinct, the biggest fast food chain is called SecretBurger (“The secret of SecretBurgers is that no one knows what sort of animal protein was actually in them”), and animals are crossbred to create absurd new species, like the liobam, a cross between a lion and lamb. Those with power or scientific and technical proficiency reside in comfortable gated compounds, constantly monitored by Big Brother-type security to prevent dissenters; the less influential are relegated to the “pleeblands,” rundown, unprotected neighborhoods rampant with crime and poverty.
Yet speculative fiction is only one aspect of The Year of the Flood. Remove the fantastic elements and dystopian landscape, and the heart of the tale remains—a story of human relationships and resilience. The Gardeners at first seem like a hackneyed cult of hippies and rejects, but they are also full of compassion and respect for nature and one another. They are the only ones who predict the plague and are the most prepared to face it.
In a somewhat peculiar approach, Atwood follows each of Adam One’s chapters (presented as sermons to the Gardeners) with a related hymn from the group’s oral hymnbook. Atwood herself is a respected poet and, compared to her published poetry, these hymns are amateurish—perhaps purposely so. The Gardeners are, after all, an indiscriminate group of radicals from diverse backgrounds. Readers can surmise that Atwood has taken these hymns very seriously, particularly because they have been set to music and made available for download (for “devotional purposes”) on the book’s website.
Female relationships—a subject Atwood visits in many of her works—is also a major theme in The Year of the Flood. The connection that develops between Ren and Toby, a literal teacher-student relationship that grows into more of a sisterly bond, is the shining light in a story of death, disease, and disaster. Fellow Gardeners perceive Toby as a hard shell—unemotional and cold. Ren is seen as sensitive and weak. Together, facing extreme hazards, they unlock each other’s true character and realize how much they depend on one another. Even Ren’s desperate dedication to her lost friend Amanda is inspiring. Of all the relationships in the book—some based on love, sex, romance, familial ties—the strongest bonds are between women who come to rely on, respect, and protect one another.
Those bonds are what make this novel a more personal and poignant book than its predecessor. Both are successful in conveying a sense of unease and caution, and both display an imaginative and convincing dystopia, but The Year of the Flood focuses more sharply on the human element. In Oryx and Crake, readers sympathize with Jimmy and hope for his survival, but in this book they are entirely invested in the lives of Ren and Toby. This greater emphasis on humanity—including the compassion and resilience of the characters—is Atwood’s glimmer of hope. It is a tiny green seedling sprouting in a vast desert. Together now they face the task of rebuilding civilization. Certainly the fact that they have been taught to honor and protect the environment is no coincidence.
Whether one reads into the author’s warnings and satirical commentary or not, The Year of the Flood is an exciting read in the same sense that ghost stories or psychological thrillers are exciting. The sinister setting, anxious tone, and deeply developed characters keep the novel well-paced and gripping, while the underlying themes trigger introspection. This smart and bold novel will surely leave an impression long after the Gardener’s last hymn is sung.(less)
Chock full of tips on how to turn a hobby into a successful side business - while keeping the rest of your life in perspective. Down-to-earth, encoura...moreChock full of tips on how to turn a hobby into a successful side business - while keeping the rest of your life in perspective. Down-to-earth, encouraging tone, cute illustrations, and insight from some big names in the indie-craft scene. A must have for anyone trying to make a profit off their handmade goods. (less)
Blending urban fantasy with a traditional whodunit, Jedediah Berry takes readers on a dreamlike journey filled with mystery and intrigue in his debut novel, The Manual of Detection. Though primarily a detective story, the book combines elements of noir and steampunk for a surreal reading experience.
The story opens in an unnamed city. Though the time period remains unstated, the setting and prose evoke an Edwardian feel, lending a steampunk noir aspect to the story. Grand, monumental buildings loom in the dark clouds and a busy Central Terminal train station serves as a repository for the town’s hubbub. A dreamy gloom settles over the city plagued by constant rain. This heavy atmosphere provides a perfectly constructed backdrop for a story that walks the line between realism and surrealism.
In Berry’s world, detectives are pitted against criminals in an endless battle between order and chaos. Crime is something of an art form, dexterously schemed and epic when executed. Major heists—such as The Oldest Murdered Man, The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, and The Man Who Stole November Twelfth—require imagination, creativity, and even magic on part of the criminals. The main law enforcer, the highly-regarded Agency, relies on resourceful detectives and stringent organizational procedures to solve mysteries and apprehend the guilty.
Charles Unwin, an Agency file clerk, finds his routine and orderly life perfectly acceptable. Content with neatly archiving the details of famed detective Travis Sivart’s cases, Unwin intends nothing more than a simple life for himself. When Sivart goes missing, however, the Agency inexplicably promotes Unwin to rank of detective. Armed with only his trusty umbrella and a copy of the Agency’s guidebook, The Manual of Detection, Unwin is charged with finding the missing Sivart and reinstating normal order.
Unwin, a reluctant hero, first attempts to reject his seemingly mistaken promotion but is met with closed doors and cold shoulders. Before long, he finds himself in over his head: framed for murder and pursued by the very Agency he spent the last 20 years serving. Finally accepting that an orderly and controlled approach won’t help his situation, Unwin opens his mind and The Manual. Broken into 17 chapters of crucial information, The Manual offers profound and sensible insight into the mystery-solving process, mirroring the progression of the real book. Chapter One—“On Shadowing”—divulges, “The expert detective’s pursuit will go unnoticed, but not because he is unremarkable. Rather, like the suspect’s shadow, he will appear as though he is meant to be there.”
Following the book’s advice, with some unsolicited help along the way, Unwin begins unraveling a bigger scandal than predicted. Here the story turns surreal, blurring the lines between reality and dreams—literally. Sivart appears in Unwin’s dream, directing him to Chapter Eighteen of The Manual. But Sivart’s copy has no Chapter Eighteen. He also notices that most of the city’s population has fallen into a perpetual dream state, sleepwalking through their days. Now in search of the lost chapter and an explanation of the townsfolks’ absurd behavior, Unwin thrusts himself into the city’s seedy underbelly. Berry is skilled at creating an imaginative but engrossing world, complete with quirky characters and stunning scenery. Readers become a part of the story and feel as though they are standing right beside Unwin, feeling the rain soak through their own socks as they gather clues to the mystery.
A few prime suspects lay at the heart of the investigation. Berry introduces a cast of colorful characters who are at once bizarre but engaging. A city’s defunct traveling carnival, now renamed the Travels-No-More, provides the city with an eerie troop of delinquents, thieves, and vagabonds. Mastermind magician Enoch Hoffman, crime boss for more than a decade, tops the list of suspects. A skilled biloquist and master of disguise, Hoffman was Sivert’s foremost adversary. His underlings, the once conjoined twins Jasper and Josiah Rook, are also suspect. Every noir detective story needs a femme fatale, and Cleopatra Greenwood fulfills this role. A one-time criminal, Greenwood now claims allegiance to the Agency. Unwin and readers are kept guessing as to whether she can be trusted.
In fact, no one in The Manual of Detection is truly who they seem. Even the Agency superiors cannot be trusted. Ultimately, Unwin must enter the dreams of the man he is accused of murdering to learn the secrets of the strange and nightmarish scandal.
The plot unfolds like a dream, with both slow twists and sudden turns. The novel requires a stretch of the imagination on behalf of the reader, but that only makes it more exciting and unexpected. By the end of the book, the readers will feel as though they are waking from a detailed and intricate dream.
Though Berry takes great care to embellish his characters with distinct and bizarre personas, he fails to create a bond between the characters and the reader. Unwin gains the reader’s sympathy due to his mild-manners and the absurdity of the situation, but he won’t be memorable long after the story ends. This is only a minor complaint, however, as the book’s other qualities more than make up for the lack of emotional connection. By putting a magical twist to an old-fashioned crime novel, Berry will quickly put readers under his spell. (less)
I don't typically read mystery-thrillers, but this came highly recommended from a friend after we saw the movie poster hanging in the theater (film to...moreI don't typically read mystery-thrillers, but this came highly recommended from a friend after we saw the movie poster hanging in the theater (film to be released 2010). Lehane's writing is smooth and the imagery is vivid, creating a dark, haunting scene. To be cliche, it was a "page turner" and I ended up reading the book in one night and one morning, staying up late for "just one more chapter" (ie, half the book).
Maybe because I was expecting a Very Big Twist, I predicted the ending before it was revealed. Still, it frightened me in an unexpected way. I was left feeling very uneasy and disturbed, the way you feel after watching a good scary movie. (less)
Amanda Eyre Ward delivers 12 beautiful and memorable tales in her short story collection Love Stories in This Town. Despite what the title may imply, these are not idealistic tales of naïve romance. Rather, Ward’s stories are fiercely realistic, sometimes cynical and always raw.
The first six stories in the collection focus on different women struggling through critical times in their lives. On the surface, many of their problems are far from extraordinary: fighting with a spouse, uncertainty over a new engagement, anxiety in the wake of 9/11. One of Ward’s gifts as a writer is her ability to relate the agony and pressure of everyday life in ways that are subtly poignant and relatable. Most of the characters are at an age where they are thinking of marriage or motherhood, and those topics take center stage. Tied together with themes of disappointment, loss, choice, and hope, the stories present an honest look at the burdens faced by women in contemporary society.
The second half of the book re-examines these themes in a series of stories spanning the life of Lola Wilkerson. Readers follow Lola through different turning points in her life, including lost love, elopement, run-ins with her alcoholic father, and childbirth. In just six short stories, we see Lola’s entire life as told through the accounts of different women: her own, her mother’s, her mother-in-law’s. Ward expertly crafts a complete history for Lola in fewer than 100 pages, allowing readers insight into her decisions and feelings. The character is at once authentic and genuine but also entirely relatable to readers who will be able to see some of themselves in Lola as she evolves.
Setting and locale are important to each of these stories, and Ward takes readers everywhere from suburban Texas to the high rise apartments of New York City to an American compound in Saudi Arabia. Ward creates and conveys these locations just as thoughtfully as she does her characters so that readers are instantly immersed in every aspect of the tales. The towns of these stories provide more than just an interesting backdrop for the plot; they are woven into the fabric of the stories, becoming just as crucial as the characters themselves. In the story "Shakespeare.com," Ward captures the essence of the impending internet boom in Seattle, relating the excitement and trepidation inexperienced companies felt as they embarked on new, risky ventures. She conveys the shaky starts, the misguided ideas, the thrill of success and fear of failure and juxtaposes that mood with her young character who strives to conceive a child.
Setting also advances the evolution of the characters, particularly in the Lola stories. She begins as a young college student in Montana, suffering a broken heart in a lonely bar, looking for direction from the detached bartender who tells her, "There are no love stories in this town." We then find Lola impulsively eloping in Las Vegas and then beginning a life with her new husband in a small town in Colorado. Her journeys from there illustrate other changes in her life, the momentous and the mundane.
In this collection, Ward masters subtlety. While her stories deal with significant life choices and some agonizing realizations, she never ventures into maudlin or weepy territory. In fact, if there is a complaint about this book, it would be that the outlook on love and life is sometimes overly cynical and borderline pessimistic. There are no easy choices for the women of these stories, and the reader can sometimes be left feeling disheartened by the book’s somber mood. Not every story needs or deserves a happy ending, of course, but the sullen tone does mount throughout the book. Therefore, it is up to the reader to decide what will happen to these characters and if their choices will ultimately end in happiness. Ward offers no easy conclusions or cheerful closure, but instead leaves the stories open-ended, allowing the characters to continue living inside the minds of readers. A close read will show glimmers of hope for the women in the book, but readers must discover that for themselves.
Love Stories in This Town is a smart, memorable, and relevant look at the choices and issues facing women today. Ward’s witty, delicate prose and her honest characters will hit readers like a forceful breath of fresh air and possibly prompt them to consider how their town or city exemplifies their own journey through life.(less)
I'm truly not crazy about this series... but for some reason I keep finding myself wanting to read them. I blame HBO entirely. I love the show, trashy...moreI'm truly not crazy about this series... but for some reason I keep finding myself wanting to read them. I blame HBO entirely. I love the show, trashy as it may be.
I find Sookie (in the books and show, but more so in the books) to be incredibly corny. She "loves" Bill, but thinks Eric is tasty, and Sam is also kiss-worthy. She's kind of a bimbo, yes?
It's very odd for a television show to be better than the book(s) it is based on, but that seems to be the case here. The characters in the show are much better developed and more interesting. Eric, for example, is much darker in the show -- rather than just another guy (living or dead) who wants to get in Sookie's pants. I really miss Tara and Jason in the books, who get about three lines combined. The book version of Sam is also very dull.
I have to give Charlaine Harris some credit, though, considering she is the one who came up with the basic concepts for seasons 1 and 2 of the show (time will tell if the show continues to follow suit). HBO undoubtedly hired an entire team of writers to flesh out the story. These books (from what I can tell of 1 and 2) are disposable but fun. I like to keep a couple of books "in progress" at the same time. When I need a break from emotionally or mentally challenging literature, I like to have something a bit more undemanding on hand.(less)
An interesting take on the vampire genre. Sonja Blue is a vampire hunter... and also a vampire herself. She struggles to keep the human part of her al...moreAn interesting take on the vampire genre. Sonja Blue is a vampire hunter... and also a vampire herself. She struggles to keep the human part of her alive, while battling the dark "Other" within. The duality is quite interesting.
Over the course of the three novels in this "horrorpunk" series, Sonja searches for her maker, the powerful ancient vampire who raped and (almost) killed her two decades ago. She doesn't mind ridding the world of a few other vamps and other evil creatures along the way.
In the Sonja Blue universe, many supernatural beings try to pass for human (they are called Pretenders): vampires, seraphs, ogres, ghosts, to name a few. Author Nancy Collins does not glamorize any of them. In fact, the books are quite gruesome. Her imagery is incredibly well-written, to the point where I physically felt sick reading certain scenes. These books are definitely not for weak dispositions. There were a few times I had to put the collection down and read something else for a while. This is real horror fiction and it hits you right in the gut.
I'm not usually a fan of gore (I can't even watch horror films anymore) but these books are so original and the plot is very well-developed. I would recommend reading the entire collection, not just one or two of the three books, for the full story arc.
I definitely appreciate the strong female lead character (finally! in a horror novel!). Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but a lot less likable and so much more hardcore. (less)
I was a fan of the HBO show before I read the books, which may have worked in or against the author's favor. In his favor, because I could picture the...moreI was a fan of the HBO show before I read the books, which may have worked in or against the author's favor. In his favor, because I could picture the characters and Miami (where I've never been) so vividly in mind. The book really came to life. Against his favor because, sadly, the books aren't as good as the television show, in my opinion.
In any case, what a thrilling idea for a protagonist! Jeff Lindsay sure has a twisted mind, and I like it! (less)
In his new novel, Monster, A. Lee Martinez serves up an urban fantasy escapade bursting with biting humor and sarcasm. Through genuine and realistically flawed characters, madcap scenarios, and glimpses of philosophical perception, Martinez balances a fun and funny story with just the right amount of contemplation to keep it from being too serious.
The story follows titular character Monster, a cryptobiological containment specialist. Simply put, he restrains and captures supernatural creatures the same way Animal Control catches stray dogs and cats. However, the animals Monster captures—cryptobiologicals, or cryptos—are nothing short of fantastic. Monster first meets Judy, a bored supermarket clerk, when she calls to report a yeti eating all the ice cream out of the store fridge. Together, through an unusual turn of events, Monster and Judy become humanity's last hope for survival.
Martinez may not break new ground in urban fantasy writing, but there are enough creative and original fantasy elements to keep the story fresh. Martinez sprinkles the plot with countless mythological and paranormal beings, some recognizable (such as gremlins) and some not (such as grylio, a sort of polka-dotted venomous iguana). There are even angels and devils walking among us, including Monster's demon girlfriend from hell. Literally.
While intrinsically good people, Judy and Monster both have their share of personality flaws. Monster is often selfish, apathetic, and lazy. Judy is cynical, unmotivated, and irritable. While they share an unavoidable bond that comes with joining together to save the world from an evil super-being, they don't actually like each other. Readers, too, will catch on to their relative shortcomings but will also appreciate the realistic portrayal of two young people trying to get by in less than desirable circumstances. Martinez has an exceptional imagination, shown through the fantastic characters and scenes, but also a bluntly realistic perspective of real life. Consider the novel's antagonist, who reminds readers that humans, for the most part, create their own problems:
Humans are unique in this world because they're the only creatures that can make themselves miserable… You do it by expecting to be happy. You're so busy thinking about happiness, obsessing about finding it and why it isn't where you expect it to be, that you completely miss the point.
This balance of the wildly absurd (supernatural beings, potential Armageddon) and stark realism helps give the book a more credible edge. The story mostly maintains a lighter tone, but Martinez does sneak in some reflective insights between the lines.
One of the more endearing characters is Monster's sidekick, Chester. A "sixth-dimensional entity using a paper construct to interact and interface with this plane," Chester is a higher being from another dimension who can fold his paper body into various shapes as needed. Sometimes, he folds himself into a walking, talking paper man; sometimes, he becomes a flying paper crane to quickly flee a situation. Chester often serves as the voice of reason for Monster, partly due to his superior logic and detachment from the human race that makes him think more objectively. He also steps in when Monster's conscience starts to waver. When Monster decides to turn his back on the mystical battle for humanity and let fate sort itself out—even at Judy's expense—Chester is the one who reminds him what it means to be a human:
You are the most shortsighted, impulsive, and self-centered blob of protoplasm I have ever met. But here's your chance, Monster. It's time to prove that you aren't just one bad decision after another, that you can do what needs to be done when it comes right down to it. It's time to be more than just a human being looking out for himself. Or you can just be another blob of protoplasm. It's your call.
And that really is the theme of the novel, behind all the sarcastic remarks and cryptobiological antics. It is about choosing to do the right thing even when walking away is considerably easier. It is about two members of the human race—ones who don't even particularly like each other—who can reach out to each other in a difficult time.
Monster may not offer profound revelations to its readers, but is an enjoyably playful read with the creativity to keep readers absorbed and depth to keep them engaged. (less)
Carolyn Turgeon's Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story is a quirky and offbeat retelling of the classic fairy tale, brought up to date for an adult audience. While preserving the basic, familiar features of the original story, Turgeon introduces readers to an often overlooked and underappreciated part of the story: the fairy godmother. Her interpretation is less Walt Disney than Brothers Grimm, hitting on themes of redemption and forgiveness.
The godmother of this story, Lil, is a fallen fairy now living in present-day New York City after being banished from her magical land. Though she still has her wings, which she keeps hidden under wraps, Lil has lost her magic and is stuck in an aging human form. Now an old lady with white hair, sunken eyes, and a heavy heart, Lil often reflects upon her youth in the fairy kingdom. Chapters alternate between Lil's previous life as a beautiful fairy and her current state. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that Lil made a terrible mistake in her former life that has caused her to live the rest of her days in a kind of purgatory until she is forgiven. Lil believes that if she can play matchmaker once again and cause two of her lonely young friends to fall in love with each other, she will be redeemed, liberated from her human form, and invited back to the fairy land.
The traditional Cinderella story is aimed at a younger audience and has a more transparent and easily digestible theme. Turgeon's version illustrates how people can become their own worst enemies through denial and self-loathing. While there are still touches of whimsy sprinkled throughout the book (like the quaint rare bookstore in which human Lil works) the story is very dark at its core, dealing with some intense issues. Turgeon strikes a good balance between the heavy themes and fantastical aspects of the story, managing to make Godmother relevant enough to be taken seriously but light enough to not be overwhelming or depressing.
One of Turgeon's real gifts is her ability to show, through her writing, the magic of modern, everyday life. Her beautifully written descriptions of New York City rival those of Lil's magical fairy kingdom. Turgeon obviously loves the city and excels at describing the enchanting old city glamour and gritty bohemian districts. It's enough to make a seasoned city dweller want to take a walk around his or her own neighborhood with fresh eyes and discover new charms.
Godmother does have its problems, however—namely, the characters. Lil is the only truly developed character of the book, and her self-loathing and timidity can be bothersome. Yes, she made a horrible mistake in the past and is overcome with a mix of guilt and desire, but there is never any reason for readers to side with her. She is pitiable but not actually likable. The two main supporting characters, the two lonely hearts Lil attempts to unite, are underdeveloped and insignificant. Readers learn next to nothing about the man, George, except that he is handsome, educated, and a bit gloomy. Turgeon must have forgotten to give him a personality or didn't deem one necessary. His polar opposite, Veronica, has an excess of personality, as if Turgeon tried to fit too much into one character and instead ended up with a caricature. Veronica is a loveable oddball , frenzied but caring, friendly but sarcastic, confident but self-deprecating. She's supposed to be young and hip—sewing her own clothes, owning a hair salon, in love with old Hollywood and vintage ephemera, even publishing a blog—but comes across as clichéd and overdone. Veronica and George are intended to be modern versions of Cinderella and the prince, but they elicit no emotion and therefore only serve Lil's plot to bring another young couple together.
Character disappointments aside, the book is well crafted and imaginative. Rather than simply retelling a well-known story from a different perspective, Turgeon turns the tale upside down to reveal a darker side, tackling profound themes of redemption and forgiveness. It's an enjoyable mix of sweet and bitter, light and dark, magic and realism. (less)
Recently, the young adult market has been saturated with the supernatural: wizards, witches, fairies, time travelers, and of course, vampires have all been common players. What have been missing, up until now, are the zombies. Carrie Ryan helps fill that void with her debut young adult novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
Books about zombies are often formulaic, following the Night of the Living Dead blueprint: A mysterious and rapidly spreading virus infects a large portion of the population, leaving a small group to fend for themselves against the monsters and sometimes each other. This premise, while riveting in its original conception, now seems overplayed by masses of copycat books and films. Ryan puts a unique twist on the old formula by setting her story hundreds of years after an outbreak and turns The Forest of Hands and Teeth into much more than just a monster story.
In fact, one could say that Ryan's novel is less of a horror story and more of a dystopian novel about human nature and desires—one that just happens to feature flesh-eating monsters. Of course survival is a concern for characters always under threat of infection, but the real theme is the difference between simply existing and actually living. Ryan asks her readers, Is it worth sacrificing personal choice and love for the greater good? Zombies (here called Unconsecrated) just happen to be growling in the shadows.
Sixteen-year-old Mary has lived alongside the Unconsecrated her entire life. For seven generations, the undead have been separated from Mary and her people by a mere chain-link fence encircling the village. What lies beyond the barrier is the seemingly infinite Forest, where the infected roam eternally. To the best of the villagers' knowledge, they themselves are all that's left of the human race.
Hundreds of years after the initial outbreak, called the Return, the world has regressed into a society that seems downright medieval. The idea of a bleak, self-sustaining world built among the ruins of a much more advanced society, with death (or un-death) lurking around the corner, is indeed scary. But even more chilling is the culture that grew out of the desperate circumstances. With extremely reduced numbers, operating on the assumption that all of humanity is at stake, reproduction is understandably a top priority for Mary's people.
Here, the book takes a cue from Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. With a heightened emphasis on procreation, several things are sacrificed, like freedom, choice, and the value of love. Girls especially have few opportunities: Either be "claimed" by one of the village's young men and bear him many children or join the female-run religious order, the Sisters, which serves to uphold the village's value system and social order. Those who fail to comply are forced out into the Forest for a fate worse than death.
As in The Handmaid's Tale, most of the villagers obey the totalitarian rule of the Sisters, accepting that their sacrifices are for the greater good of humanity. The exception is Mary, who dares to dream of a life beyond the fences, to wonder whether there are other survivors in the world. When a conspiracy shakes the village and sparks mayhem, Mary finally has a chance to explore those questions.
Ryan has an elegant writing style that is rich and flowing without being too flowery. She especially succeeds when describing scenes of peril, relating the characters' fears and reactions with believability and suspense. Though the book has some horror elements, she never brings it to a cliché level with unnecessary or sensational gore.
Where the book suffers is the inclusion of a melodramatic romantic plotline that detracts from the weightier theme of personal choice versus conformity for the greater good. Perhaps intended to draw in the teen and tween demographics, the love quadrangle in which Mary finds herself is messy and gratuitous. That's not saying a romantic story line has no place in speculative fiction or horror, but instead of using a tale of forbidden love to emphasize the restrictive dystopian society, Ryan veers into soap opera territory. It is awkward and disappointing when the normally strong and spirited Mary, who exhibits courage in the face of so much adversity, starts pining over a boy and blaming herself for his weaknesses. Ryan had the opportunity to make a much more impactful statement here about the danger of sacrificing love for social order, but unfortunately leaves the allusion rather shallow considering the young target audience.
Ryan is ambitious with what she tries to accomplish in such a short book, hitting on aspects of horror and suspense, speculative fiction, feminist allusions, and teen melodrama. While she doesn't quite hit the mark on all of them, The Forest of Hands and Teeth does bring an original perspective to a traditional genre and explores some hefty themes in appropriate ways for a teen audience. The book would benefit from additional length or tidied plotlines, but it is still an impactful and provoking debut novel. If she continues exploring the themes and suspense she initiated here, the sequel in development could make even bigger waves. (less)
Meg Rosoff's novel What I Was will early on remind readers of John Knowles's classic coming of age tale, A Separate Peace. Both books feature an adult narrator reminiscing about his time as a 16-year-old in a boarding school and the dark events that changed his life forever. Though the similarities are undeniable, Rosoff manages to give her story a unique touch that will haunt the reader long after the final page.
Rosoff gives a nod to A Separate Peace on different levels. Her main character, unnamed until the end of the book, looks back on his formative time spent at a stuffy and remote English boarding school during the 1960s. During this period, H. (as he'll be referred to here), forms an unusual relationship with an extraordinary boy who is everything the narrator wishes to be. Like Knowles's book, What I Was is a story about questioned identity, innocence lost, and how we become who we are.
Already having been dismissed from two schools for lackluster performance and general apathy, H. instantly feels suffocated by the strict rules and conventions at his new school, St. Oswald's. His teenage angst can be almost unbearable to an adult reader who is never really enlightened as to why the boy harbors such ennui and hostility. Once H. realizes that St. Oswald's low standards would make dismissal from a third school difficult, he submits to coasting along, keeping his head down and mouth shut, and following the same pattern of mediocrity that is expected of him.
Adolescence is a trying time at best, but H.'s malaise exceeds normal teenage discontent and at first distances him from the reader. For example, his poor treatment of a lonely fellow student desperate for friendship is off-putting. The mild dislike readers may feel for the protagonist doesn't seem to be a mistake by the author however. One could assume that these character flaws purposely show the naivety of a young boy who hasn't yet realized the world doesn't revolve around himself. It ultimately shows how we can become so wrapped up in ourselves, or someone else, that we selfishly forget the world around us.
This fog of melancholy envelopes the book from the first page to the last word, but the heavy mood provides an almost Gothic feel to the book. This is most evident in the magically-described setting. St. Oswald's is a dreary Victorian structure resembling a prison engulfed by misty fog so thick that when H. and his father arrive for the first time they "might have driven off England and into the sea if not for a boy waving a torch in bored zigzags by the school entrance." The featureless corridors and dark courtyards seem designed to "starve the human spirit." These miserable surroundings are a stark contrast to the spellbinding world of crashing waves and green marshes H. discovers when he meets a remarkable stranger.
An ordinary day turns extraordinary when H. accidentally encounters a boy his age secretly living alone in an abandoned fisherman's hut off the coast, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. The quiet and peculiar boy is beautiful, athletic, clever, and most of all independent—everything H. is not. His name, whether ironically or deliberately, is Finn—like Finny from A Separate Peace. And like the fascinating Finny of Knowles's book, Finn evokes a sense of envy from the protagonist:
He looked impossibly familiar, like a fantasy version of myself, with the face I had always hoped would look back at me from a mirror. The bright, flickering quality of his skin reminded me of the surface of the sea. He was almost unbearably beautiful and I had to turn away, overcome with pleasure and longing and a realization of life's desperate unfairness.
H. is immediately drawn to the drastic contrast of Finn and his world. While H. has rules, academics, and structure, Finn has none of those. Instead, he takes his lessons from the nature around him and a shelf of old books he has read and re-read over the years. His exotic lifestyle of absolute freedom and his awkward detached personality captivate H., who becomes absorbed in forging a friendship between them, to the point of obsession.
Rosoff never spells out whether H.'s attraction to Finn is sexual or romantic in nature, instead leaving it to the reader to interpret. It is clear, though, that H. begins to question his identity and becomes dependent on Finn for his own happiness. His infatuation with Finn gives H. a new purpose but also consumes him entirely. His disregard for the rest of the world eventually takes a toll and leads to tragic consequences for all involved.
The intense story is short but expertly paced, neither drawn out nor rushed. Rosoff strikes an ideal balance between the serious tone and heavy emotions, and the mystery and excitement surrounding Finn. The book may not leave readers in particularly high spirits—hard lessons are never easily learned—but the haunting story has its own strange beauty. Rosoff not only draws readers into the story but shuts out the outside world so that readers feel as though they've been dropped into gloomy St. Oswald's or Finn's magical hut alongside the narrator. This beautifully structured and poignant story may take a few cues from its predecessors, but it certainly has enough qualities to stand on its own as a heartbreaking tale about the pains of growing up. (less)
Linda L. Richards's Death Was in the Picture is a detective story set in 1930s Los Angeles, amid the contrasting glamour of Hollywood and the troubling Great Depression. Though the plot has some shortcomings, the thrilling backdrop of an excessive and scandalous Tinseltown makes the read fleetingly enjoyable but ultimately forgettable.
When a young starlet is found dead during a ritzy Hollywood shindig, all eyes immediately turn to dreamboat actor Laird Wyndham, the last person seen with the woman. Despite the suspicious circumstances and a merciless media that has already pegged him as guilty, Wyndham asserts his innocence. Private investigator Dexter Theroux finds himself in a pickle when he's hired by both sides: a peculiar anonymous organization intent on keeping Wyndham behind bars and the accused himself in search of the real culprit.
Dex might be the hired expert, but it is often his secretary and makeshift sidekick Katherine (Kitty) Pangborn who runs the show, and it is through her eyes that we watch the story unfold. Kitty and Dex, first introduced in Richards's Death Was the Other Woman, have a comical and friendly rapport, bouncing ideas and wisecracks off each other. Kitty's name might not be on the door, but she is every bit as vital to the business as Dex. Without her, he would waste away in his office with a bottle of Jack Daniels until the money ran out. Keeping Dex in line and on task might be Kitty's first priority—after all, her paycheck depends on his work—but her brains and moxie provide a different perspective to the investigation.
While Dex and Kitty's back-and-forth banter and unfulfilled sexual tension is fun to read, they aren't the sharpest gumshoes. They spend most of their time going in circles, talking to the same few people while overlooking what readers will pick up as obvious signs of conspiracy. To be fair to them—at the expense of the author—there doesn't seem to be much to investigate. For the reader, the real fun of a murder-mystery is piecing together clues as the story progresses, but there aren't many pieces to pick up, at least not for the majority of the book. We have a famous actor arrested for a violent crime for which the police and media think he is fully capable and responsible, but our detective team has a hunch that he is innocent. The few people they interrogate paint a very neutral portrait of the accused: He has something of a temper but probably couldn't actually commit murder. Or maybe he could. No one is willing to get off the fence about it.
A main drawback of the book is that instead of focusing on the actual murder mystery and solving the crime, Richards tries to make a statement about the ethical standards and shortcomings of the movie business in its early years. By trying to tie in a real, historical scandal with the fictional account, she introduces too many components without allowing proper buildup and development, resulting in a flat and patchy plot. Richards gets a point for being ambitious, but she fails to follow through and ends up needing to explain the historical aspects and relevance in a closing commentary.
What the book lacks in plot, it makes up in setting and mood. Though the 1930s setting is standard for a noir detective story, Richards excels at bringing that whimsical world of excess alive. When Kitty finds herself in situations most people can only dream of—sitting across the table from the biggest star in the world, attending a lavish party filled with celebrities, on set during the filming of an epic movie—readers share her astonishment and delight. Even Richards's portrayal of Los Angeles's other side—the one crumbling under the pressure of the Depression—draws readers into the story. The book certainly doesn't break any ground in the genre, but it will provide readers with an evening or two of escape from reality.
Had Richards focused more on the murder mystery rather than trying to make a statement about morality in Hollywood, readers could focus on the book's strengths more than its disappointments. Death Was in the Picture works better when considered a period piece, rather than a suspenseful whodunit. With a gutsy female lead like Kitty, as well as the fascinating background of 1931, future books in this series could impress. Sadly, the lack of cohesive plot and brain-teasing mystery in this release leaves much to be desired for crime novel fans. (less)
The Tales of Beedle the Bard was originally conceived as a thank you gesture from author J.K. Rowling to a handful of people who were instrumental in helping her build the Harry Potter empire. All six original copies were handwritten and illustrated, bound in leather and decorated with jewels. Rowling then created a seventh copy—to match the seven Harry Potter books—for a charity auction. Amazon.com bought the book, paying £1.95 million: the highest price achieved at auction for a modern literary manuscript, and a record both for a manuscript by Rowling and for a children's book.
A year later, we mere mortals can finally enjoy the book ourselves and prolong our Harry Potter obsessions for just a little bit longer. The general public release may not be bound in leather and moonstone, but it does include copies of Rowling's charming illustrations. Additionally, all net proceeds are donated to The Children's High Level Group, a charity Rowling co-founded to help underprivileged children in Europe.
Readers who are not already fans of Rowling's magnum opus probably will not enjoy the little book of fairy tales, as it draws heavily on lore established in the Harry Potter series. In fact, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is an actual text mentioned in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, inherited and translated from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger. One story, "The Tale of the Three Brothers," was even told in its entirety in The Deathly Hallows. The remaining four stories are all original and never-before seen.
Beedle the Bard is something like a Grimm brother for the wizarding world, imparting lessons in morality and integrity through fairy tales. As the introduction from Rowling informs readers, these tales have been passed down through generations of wizards and witches, told to their young. While Muggles—or non-magical humans—have Cinderella and her glass slipper, young witches and wizards have "Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump."
Some familiarity with the Harry Potter series is helpful while reading the book, though not entirely necessary. The five short tales are very much like traditional bedtime stories, hitting on themes of responsibility, envy, selfishness, and honor. The main difference between Beedle's tales and Muggle folklore is the focus on magic use—after all, young wizards need to be taught to use their gifts for the higher good and not just personal gain.
Take for example the first story, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot." A young and stingy wizard refuses to help his non-magical neighbors by curing their ailments, as his generous father had once done, and thus suffers the consequences of his selfishness. It is a very simple tale with a familiar theme—something that you might tell a child at bedtime to teach him a lesson of compassion and goodwill—but centered on the use of magic.
A similar anecdote about the misuse of magic is "The Warlock's Hairy Heart." In this, a greedy warlock engages in the Dark Arts—which Harry Potter readers will recognize as fearsome and often evil—to remove his heart in an attempt to avoid being weakened by love. To underscore the dangers involved with such wicked magic, the tale turns gory and frightening.
"Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump" is a humorous story, though it sheds a comically negative light on Muggles—highlighting the tendency for non-magical people to trivialize or misunderstand magic. It is through this fable that many wizard children learn that no spell can truly bring back a human from the dead. Harry Potter readers will recognize Babbitty as an animagus, and one of Rowling's footnotes clarifies the difference between this trait and simply turning oneself into something else temporarily via transfiguration.
The stories themselves are clever and charming, but the real treat of the book is the extensive commentary on each of the five tales provided by everyone's favorite headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. After each tale, Dumbledore provides further insight into the history and relevance of each as it pertains to the wizarding world. It is here that Rowling weaves an intricate web of Harry Potter history, drawing on well-established canon (even citing familiar names like Nearly Headless Nick and Lucius Malfoy) and supporting it with new lore—and all in the charismatic and charming voice of the witty headmaster.
While extensive knowledge of the Harry Potter world isn't required to enjoy the commentary, some of Dumbledore's quips might be missed otherwise. His notes are funny, sarcastic, and intelligent, just as readers have come to know the master wizard. They serve up a bit of tongue-in-cheek comic relief from a collection that would otherwise be a little too bland.
While Beedle's tales are in no way an eighth Harry Potter book, devotees will get an afternoon's worth of enjoyment out of this little treat. (less)
Tiffany Baker's captivating debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, is a charming look at how a truly unique character learns to accept herself despite having all odds against her. Despite some shortcomings, Baker manages to engage her readers through dazzling and well-crafted prose.
The unlikely heroine of Baker's story, Truly Plaice, is far from average. Even before her birth, Truly was larger than life. After seeing her mother's enormous and ever-expanding pregnant belly, townsfolk placed bets on just how big the baby would be—a baby they were sure would be a boy. They imagined him being the star quarterback of the town's team.
No one was prepared for the gravity of the situation, least of all Truly's mother and the town doctor who could not save her during childbirth. When Truly was born a girl, enormous in size, the town residents were disgusted. But her troubles would only grow larger, because Truly herself would never stop growing. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County follows Truly from her birth through adulthood, telling the story of how this peculiar character grew into her own person in a town that would never accept her differences.
"Stuck somewhere between a village and a town," the fictional Aberdeen County is a quaint small town in upstate New York during the 1950s—exactly the kind of backdrop this type of story requires. Baker succeeds in bringing the town to life in such detail that readers can picture the weeds growing out of the cracked sidewalks or imagine the white picket fences in need of a fresh coat of paint. Everything about Aberdeen is deceptive: beautiful at first sight, but ugly underneath. Initially, Aberdeen appears to be the kind of picturesque community urban dwellers reflect upon dreamily when the indifference of modern city life bears down: neighbors who drop off casseroles and food baskets when there is a death in the family, a perennial festival where the most beautiful girl in town is crowned May Queen, and one family doctor who has treated every generation in the household.
But Aberdeen has an ugly side. Its isolated environment breeds simplemindedness and ignorance in the townsfolk, who educate their youth in a one-room schoolhouse where older children learn alongside the younger and half the books in the old brick library are faded and illegible. In Aberdeen, gossip runs rampant, rumors become truth, and prejudice is allowed to blossom. Truly never had a fair chance, being born into such an environment. Her increasingly immense body makes her an instant outcast, especially in contrast to her pretty, doll-like older sister Serena Jane.
Due to an unknown ailment, later revealed as a pituitary gland disorder, Truly continues to grow at an alarming rate throughout her life. As a child, when other girls her age wear knee-socks and skirts with matching bows in their hair, Truly wears boy's denim overalls and her father's old shirts. She doesn't know what to think of herself until a stranger to town, the new schoolmarm, labels her a "little giant." For Truly, this is a defining moment in her life.
I blushed. It was a word I'd heard before in Brenda Dyerson's fairy stories, wherein magic stalks grew out of regular dried beans, ordinary geese laid jewel-encrusted eggs, and enchanted harps sung of their own accord. To me, it was a word that swirled with extraordinary promises of castle spires and treasure chests. That's not how the teacher said it, though. She spat the word through the front of her teeth, as if she were expelling used toothpaste. "Huge!" she elaborated. "Surely it's not normal."
And that's how the majority of people see Truly—as something colossally abnormal and unwelcome. Not surprisingly, this takes a toll on Truly, who habitually comes across as unhappy, lonely, and helpless. For much of the book, she seems simply resigned to her unfortunate situation—which may be understandable given the circumstances, but is also frustrating for readers who are really pulling for Truly. Not until the later half of the book do things start looking up and readers get some reprieve from the overall tone of despair.
While Truly is an interesting character and the story quite original and heartwarming—touching on familiar themes of acceptance and love—what stands out the most is Baker's captivating writing. Without her beautiful mix of prose and imagery, the book could seem a bit too precious or ultimately forgettable. Supporting characters in the book are mostly unremarkable and the plot weakens toward the end, almost rushing toward conclusion. The fragmented romantic plotline seems like an afterthought, as though someone told Baker that familial love and friendship alone aren't marketable.
Still, Baker keeps her readers engaged by weaving together elegant prose and infusing a touch of whimsy throughout the novel. Her personal style overcomes the book's shortcomings, making it well worth the read. She may have some room for improvement, but like the heroine of her story, she will surely grow into her own. (less)
A bit of a guilty pleasure. Not the best-written book, but... sexy vampires. A little too PG-rated (especially when compared to the dirtysexy HBO seri...moreA bit of a guilty pleasure. Not the best-written book, but... sexy vampires. A little too PG-rated (especially when compared to the dirtysexy HBO series). (less)
Though sometimes disputed as science fiction, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has taken its place beside Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 as a classic dystopian novel that is still relevant today. Though the book was originally published in 1985 and the world has changed somewhat since, the warnings behind The Handmaid's Tale can still be appreciated more than two decades later. Add to that Atwood's mastery of words and symbolism, as well as the gripping story she presents, and it is easy to see why the story is an unforgettable classic.
In the near future, a civil war has plagued the former United States and a fundamentalist regime gains control of the government. For vaguely explained reasons, the population has decreased and many are left infertile. As a means to sustain population, the extremist regime instills a new social order that segregates and controls the women, stripping them of their rights and assigning them defined roles. One role is that of the "Handmaid," a fertile woman designated to bear the progeny of a childless, high-ranking couple. The majority of the story follows one such Handmaid, named Offred, through her days in the newly established Republic of Gilead.
The book has obvious feminist undertones, as every woman in Gilead is dehumanized and controlled by the men in power. Atwood also speaks to the dangers of religious and political extremism and the abuse of power. These themes are immediately recognizable, but what makes the book so dynamic and powerful is how open to interpretation it can be. Clearly Atwood is warning against the kind of abuse presented in The Handmaid's Tale, but she challenges her readers to consider deeper messages. The themes are so complex and multifaceted that a clear answer won't be found after one reading—perhaps even after several readings. The book, if to be appreciated on its deepest levels, requires active involvement and contemplation from the reader. Atwood relies on her readers to delve below the surface to consider every side of the story she presents and ultimately draw their own conclusions. It's not an easy book in that respect, but it is compelling and stimulating.
For instance, while The Handmaid's Tale is regarded as feminist literature, Atwood doesn't offer just one view of the subject matter. She clearly identifies the problems associated with political and religious radicalism and, by the same principle, doesn't shy away from revealing the relative downsides of feminist extremism. The different characters in the book represent different sides of the issue, none of them being completely "right" or "wrong."
Theoretical resolutions to the conflict aren't clear either. Consider Atwood's theme of compliance and obedience. The many women—and men—in the novel who comply with the new regime could be condemned for their acquiescence, although reluctantly, most Handmaids accept their fate without rebellion. But on the other hand, there is the sense that any opposition would be futile. Those who join the resistance movement are often captured and publically displayed after execution. The rest of the world looks on with apathy; some try escaping to nearby neutral Canada, but no allies have stepped in to restore order. In fact, there is one scene where Japanese tourists visit Offred's town and look at the Handmaids as an attraction, going so far as to take a picture. The outside world has seemingly turned a blind eye to Gilead.
While the novel is far more effective when fully explored, it can also be enjoyed on its most superficial level. Regardless of how involved a reader chooses to be, the book's strengths—like the compelling plot, extraordinary prose, and sci-fi imagining—can be appreciated on their own.
Atwood is unquestionably a gifted wordsmith who demonstrates control over every sentence she writes. Depending on the mood she wishes to portray, her prose can be breathtakingly beautiful and poetic, or it can be brusque and to the point. Because Offred controls the majority of the story, it is important that her narrative is evocative and expressive. During moments when Offred summons her, visions of her young daughter evoke pain and longing. A sense of urgency and panic engulf the pages when she is scared of being caught in an illegal act. In this sense, readers are drawn into the story on an emotional level even if they choose not to dissect the complex themes and symbolism.
As speculative fiction, Atwood sends a cautionary message through the novel. We may not have ended up in the future Atwood admonished some 20 years ago, but the warning still holds today. Whether enjoyed for the skillful prose, interesting story construct, or provocative themes, The Handmaid's Tale has earned its spot as a new classic. (less)