“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

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“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

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“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and/or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester (1864)

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female detective“Who am I? It can matter little who I am.”

Literature is populated with almost as many detectives as it is criminals. Some of the best of these are women. We all know Miss Marple, and many of us are familiar with Agatha Christie’s other female detective, Tuppence Beresford. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Temperance Brennan, Thursday Next, Ellie Miller … but how many people recognise the name “Miss Gladden”? I would wager very few. But Miss Gladden occupies a very important role in the history of the fictional female detective: she was the first.

Written way back in the 1860s, the novel is another one reproduced for a new generation for the British Library Crime Classics series, which I’ve dealt with a few other times on the blog so far and always loved. This one indeed introduces us to the first ever female detective in literary history. She gives her name as Miss Gladden, but freely admits that it’s not her real name. In fact, we discover very little about her; more interested as she is in talking about her cases and adventures.

The book is split into seven stories of wildly varying lengths which detail some of the cases of our heroine. Some involve a murder, some involve theft, one involves an issue of inheritance, but they all orbit around the fact that the person investigating is female. The stories are of varying quality and interest, and the language is what one would expect of the time.

Miss Gladden, as mentioned, keeps much of her identity secret, and the novel is certainly of its time with the impression it gives of women. Although written by a man, I actually think it does a fairly good job of giving us a female protagonist who is on one hand certainly feminine, and yet at the same time, incorrigible, strong and capable. The book makes note of the fact that it is easier for a woman to eavesdrop without being suspected, or to gain access to the private places of female suspects – be they physical or simply mental – than a man may be able to. Characters accept Gladden in her role, regardless of her gender, which is refreshing, and it’s also noted that she isn’t the only female detective in London. In reality, of course, there wouldn’t be a female police officer until 1915, some fifty years after this book was written.

Some of the stories seem to lack a satisfactory ending. Sometimes justice reaches the criminal by some other method than that of Gladden, or simply she stops writing about them, either unable to solve the case or unwilling to press on with it. Some of the solutions given also, I don’t think, would stand up in modern crime writing, but one can let them slide here.

The book is notable for its historical and literary importance, and I’m not sorry I’ve read it, nor indeed that it’s been widely published again, but I have found more than ever that I just can’t always get on with the style and language of books from two centuries previous. The blueprints are there for all the women who followed in Miss Gladden’s footsteps, but the stories have much improved over time when compared to this original installment.

“Animal” by Sara Pascoe (2016)

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animal“Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.”

I really like Sara Pascoe. She’s a newer face on the panel shows and comedy programmes of our televisions, and I fell a little bit in love with her when she first appeared on QI and knew lots of stuff about London and pandas. She’s the kind of woman I’d love to tell, “Hey, I really like you. You’re so beautiful…” but before I could finish, she’d throw her drink in my face and yell, “What about my brain??” I’d splutter through the G&T or whatever she drinks before saying, “I haven’t finished! You’re beautiful, intelligent, funny and generally awesome.” And then I’d still feel guilty as I do right now about the fact I started with “beautiful”, and feel that maybe I worded the compliment badly. But it was a compliment – I’ve always been very attracted to women’s brains. A smart woman is a sexy woman, although I’m obviously aware that a woman is not an object to be looked at, and I don’t expect anything to come from the compliment, I’m just trying to be nice, I … I’m digging myself into a hole here, aren’t I? Look, I just like paying people compliments, I’m just a bit cack-handed at it.

(Sara, should you read this and I did it wrong, I sincerely apologise. Can we forget this ever happened and move on?)

A couple of my female friends have been reading Animal and they went on to me about how amazing it was. Finding myself with that free trial of Audible that everyone who listens to podcasts gets bombarded with a few times a week, and going on the suggestion of a friend that it’s even better when read aloud, I downloaded the book and it has become the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Sara has a wonderful voice, full of real warmth, like she’s talking to you down the pub. You and her, the writer and the reader, are mates, and she’s going to tell you what she’s learnt about the female mind and body.

Split into three sections – Love, Body and Consent – the book is part-memoir, interspersed with stories from her own life (some hilarious, some tragic) and part science book, talking about what it is to be a woman both now and throughout history. She covers every possible aspect of this, including but certainly not limited to whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, how menstruation is viewed and treated around the world, what the “right” age is for consent, how we define rape, why men feel sleepy after sex and women don’t, female genital mutilation, the politics of abortion, why women evolved breasts, the female orgasm, and why humans are one of only three species on the planet (aside from killer whales and pilot whales) to undergo a menopause.

I wondered, as a man, how relevant the book would be to me, but it turns out your gender doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is eye-opening, incredibly interesting, sharply funny, and while perhaps in another person’s hands the ideas could come across as lecturing or dull, Sara weaves genius throughout it. She’s naturally funny, and very frank and open about her own problems, concerns and issues.

It’s also given me a really interesting new discussion topic for others around me. Not strangers on the bus; I’m not confident enough to strike up loud “Did you know?” conversations about tampons with them (yet) but with friends and colleagues. Most of my friends are female, as indeed are most of the people I work with, and this book has granted me access to things I, shamefacedly, even as a sexually active man in his late twenties, still didn’t really understand. One of the most curious facts I found out was about how long a menstrual cycle could last. I’d always been under the assumption it was 28 days – about a month – and had never really considered that it varied that much between women. I don’t know why. I don’t think about it much, I guess. After finding out the truth, I asked the girls at work if they knew. They all said 28 days. I revealed that, actually, it could be anywhere between 20 and 60 days. None of them knew this, and one of these girls is at university studying to be a surgeon. Even if this fact had somehow slipped through the net of secondary school sex ed, then that’s one thing, but is medical school not even drawing attention to this?

And, yeah, while we’re at it, why are the boys sent out of the room when girls learn about menstruation at school? If you take the argument that it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing for pre-teen girls to ask questions in a room full of boys, then that’s fine and I totally understand it, but the boys should be taught this stuff too, separately. We might not have the equipment, but we should know how it works. It might remove some of society’s stigma about the whole thing. Boys should probably also get a brush up on consent, as barely a week goes by without some boy somewhere dodging a jail sentence because he’s convinced a jury that consent was granted. We need to update both our sex education and our rape laws. But Sara will explain all this much more eloquently than I ever could.

I believe firmly that everyone, regardless of whether you’re male, female or somewhere in between, should read this book. It’s fascinating, funny and might even save your life.

“News From The Squares” by Robert Llewellyn (2013)

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news squares“What do you think you’re doing you silly little man?”

It seems fitting to this week read a book like this. Set in a future where women are in dominant gender, this sequel to News From Gardenia (be aware, spoilers ahead) feels more possible than ever now that Britain has a female Prime Minister again, Scotland and Germany are both run by very strong women, and it looks like the USA is about to have their first female President. So let’s dive in, and I’ll try and share my thoughts afterwards.

Gavin has crashed his plane and thinks he’s in a different part of Gardenia, the future England that he’s just left. He is picked up by several women and taken to what seems to be a hospital, but it’s like nothing he’s ever seen. Sure at first that this is part of Gardenia that he never witnessed before, it soon turns out that he’s wrong. This is still 2211, but this is an alternate future. Here, women are the dominant gender and outnumber men five to one.

While not officially held prisoner, he finds himself a resident of the Institute of Mental Health, where female doctors and psychologists want to study him. He manages to convince them that he’s really from the past, and the world falls in love with him. Well, most of it anyway. See, in this world the stories go that the men from the dark times were all evil and so the appearance of one who appears to be half-decent is a shock to the system. And his timing couldn’t be more appropriate. There’s about to be a vote to see whether men should be left to die out, leaving a fully female human race, and the man-hating Weaver women are not too pleased that there’s a man here now screwing up their propaganda.

With no means of getting home, and with his plane now in a history museum, Gavin is left to explore this world with his great-great-great-great-great-nephew Ralph, and the beautiful Dr Nkoyo Oshineye. He is also equipped with his kidonge, a small device that imbeds itself in your body and allows you to know anything just by thinking about it, and hold all your money on you at all times, making payments via handshakes. The kidonge, it turns out, also records your every move, so no one is ever where they shouldn’t be, and anyone can be found at any time…

Is this a utopian paradise, or is it an Orwellian nightmare?

I have so many feelings about this book that are almost impossible to put into words. I have no issue with a world where women are in charge – they’d probably make a far better job of it – but the way it came about seems  a bit flimsy. It appears that men simply “gave up” and women had no choice but to take over. I don’t think this holds up as a reason. I also found myself irritated at the notion that because men were responsible for all the nasty things in the world, now women rule there is apparently no violent crime, rape, child abuse or war anymore. It seems to imply that no woman would be capable of such things, although just flick through the news and I’m sure you’ll find a story or two. I get that this is meant to be propaganda from within the novel, but it still stings. I dislike being categorised with men who treat women poorly. Maybe I’m just taking it too personally, and I’m certainly not going to stand here and say that men don’t cause a lot of issues, but it just jarred with me.

Gavin by this point has also become a less sympathetic character, talking a lot about what a wonderful person he is, but displaying obvious homophobia and occasionally sexism. Granted, he seems to understand these issues about himself and isn’t necessarily happy about them, but it’s most apparent when he’s really struggling to get his head around the fact that the super fast train he’s riding could’ve been invented by a woman from Africa. Of all the people you’d want in the future, Gavin isn’t in the top thousand.

There are some cool concepts though. Religion is here regarded as a “treatable mental condition” which is an interesting take on it, and some of the technology is incredible, although how realistic any of it could be, I’m not sure. I also love the Museum of Human History, which is so enormous that its exhibits include Harrods, the Palace of Westminster and the Shard. Yep, the Shard. On the other hand, the evolution of language that we see is a bit strange and used intermittently; often simply words have been replaced by their counterparts from other languages. Syntax and grammar remain the same, though many slang terms are now absent and don’t seem to have been replaced – they’ve just vanished.

Like with the first book in the series, there is not much plot to hang your hat on, and Gavin just serves as a conduit for us to explore this new world. It’s a fascinating place to look at, but there’s something horrific about it. It feels more dystopian than News From Gardenia, which portrayed a perfect society, and maybe to the people living in this new world, this is perfect but, for me, I don’t feel welcome. The series continues (and concludes) with News From The Clouds, which I’ll get to in time. I’m still curious enough to want to know where this ends.

“A Natural History Of Dragons” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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dragons 1“When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a bench at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away.”

I think everyone likes dragons. People are fascinated by dinosaurs, really, because they’re the closest thing we ever had to real dragons. There’s something remarkable about them, and given that they turn up in pretty much every ancient culture, maybe they were real once upon a time, but we’ve now relegated them to myth and legend.

Always eager to expand my knowledge in every direction, even a fictional one, I was attracted to the idea of A Natural History of Dragons, but even more than that I was attracted to the absolutely beautiful cover of this book, which, as you can see, displays an anatomical drawing of a dragon.

This is the first book of memoirs of Lady Trent, a famous dragon naturalist from a world which is greatly similar to ours, with the natural exception of different countries and so on, and obviously the inclusion of dragons. It is an era in which women are expected to keep house, talk of simple hobbies and not do anything that would stir up trouble in society; it’s an alternate Victorian era. But this is the age of discovery, and Lady Trent, or Isabella as she’s known at this point in her life, is keen not to be left behind. As a girl she studies sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures that are believed at first to be insects, but is dissuaded by her mother from doing so, meaning she has to hide her fascination.

Her father, however, is kinder and when it comes to the time that Isabella must find a husband, he suggests a few names to her, not going on the gentlemen’s looks or riches, but on the size of the library. Isabella eventually finds a husband in Jacob Camherst, whom she meets while at the king’s menagerie with her brother one day. They have only visited because the king has some dragons in captivity, and Jacob seems quietly impressed with her knowledge.

Once married, the opportunity comes for Jacob to travel with their friend Lord Hilford to the distant mountains of Vystrana in search of dragons. Unwilling to be left out of it, Isabella insists that she come with him. Despite the men believing that this is no place for a woman, she is allowed to attend, thanks to the true love of her husband who wishes only to make her happy, regardless of what society thinks.

The troop set out to the mountains and there encounter wild dragons. But there is far more danger lurking in the caves of the mountains than Isabella and her companions ever thought possible and they soon find themselves caught up in the activities of smugglers, an unusual number of dragon attacks, and a supposed curse. The adventure is one that Isabella will remember for the rest of her life…

dragons 2Indeed, she will remember it because the book’s framework is that Isabella is now elderly and penning her complete memoirs for her interested fans. We learn via this that in the future she is widely renowned in the field, hugely successful and popular, and these are her tales of how she got to that position. She is a wonderful creation, perhaps a feminist icon, unafraid of going against the opinion of the time and determined to make her own way in the world. Why, indeed, should only men get to be scholars and adventurers?

The story is rather gripping, but if you’ve come here for a blow-by-blow account on the nature of dragons then you will be disappointed. First and foremost these are the memoirs of a spunky Victorian-esque lady adventurer, but the passages on dragons are fascinating. Isabella is obviously besotted with the creatures but her expedition is to study them, so we learn alongside her the nature of the beasts. Although similar to traditional dragons in Western mythology, there are some new additions to the mix. For example, the bones do not survive in air very long after death and crumble almost immediately. Also, not all of the dragons breathe fire, although there are some, but they all breathe something unusual;be it shards of ice, poison gas or lightning.

The book is also peppered with beautiful illustrations, presumably done by Isabella herself who is primarily on the expedition as an artist, which allow the reader to see the dragons and the locations in fine detail.

It’s hugely compelling and while some parts go a bit too deep on customs of the various countries or the political situations between them, the chapters in which Isabella is meeting dragons are hugely interesting. She is a brilliant character herself, but the supporting cast are also well-received and all seem believable within the setting, which is familiar but just different enough. If you have even a passing interest in dragons and, as I suggested above, you do, then you should curl up with this book and dream of having adventures half as interesting as this.

“Only Ever Yours” by Louise O’Neill (2014)

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untitled“The chastities keep asking me why I can’t sleep.”

I don’t ever like having to say the words, “I’m a feminist”. That’s not because I’m not one, because of course I am, but it’s merely that I don’t think it’s anything that needs to be said. Any decent human being presumably believes in equality betweeh the sexes, so it doesn’t even need to be said, right? Oh, there I go with my wistful naivety, pretending I don’t know what a mess the world is in. But these issues are right up there in Louise O’Neill’s novel, a book as sharp and finely honed as a cosmetic surgeon’s knife. Let’s take a look.

This is the story of freida, an eve who was created and designed and has only known one life, that of the School. All women live here until they are sixteen and in this environment, they are sculpted and perfected to be desirable to the menfolk who will one day own them. The dream for all these girls, of course, is to become a companion, the wife of a man. Some of those that are less fortunate will become concubines, used only for recreational sex rather than for breeding purposes. The really unlucky ones are forced to become chastities, the shaven-headed, sexless teachers at the School who suffer such injustices as (whisper it now) “growing old” and “dying of natural causes”.

freida is awaiting the Ceremony, a time when the eves will be selected by the men and they find out their place in the world. But freida has other things on her mind. Her best friend isabel has gone a bit strange. She’s started putting on weight – she’s far larger than the suggested 118 pounds – and she’s distancing herself from freida. As the pressure mounts and the stress causes freida to slip down the rankings of her peers, but she’s still desperate to keep the friendship of the new #1, megan, who will surely be won over by the most powerful man that will come for them. Time is running out and freida must do something drastic to save isabel and prove to her potential Husband that she is the right woman for him, providing she can just keep the weight off and keep her emotions under control. After all, boys don’t like girls who cause a scene…

From the off, this book is terrifying. We’re in a dystopian future where the oceans have risen and the remaining humans live in closed off zones in the centre of the old continents. Over the course of this transition, much changed. Humans got rid of anything that wasn’t necessary – animals, religion, etc – and created a society where only men are born, and women are created and exist only to birth more sons or provide them with pleasure. The School is a shocking place – this is Mean Girls on steroids – where the eves aren’t taught things like mathematics and science (after all, what man wants a companion that’s too intelligent?) but have lessons such as how to bottle up their unacceptable emotions, and the terrible Comparasion Studies, where two girls are hauled up in front of the class and the other girls have to tell them how they can improve. There’s an idea that there is always room for Improvement.

There are some great touches within here. The eves constant conversations about how beautiful they all look, while at the same time trying to outdo one another, and the endless descriptions of clothes and make up, two of the most important things in their lives. There’s also the fact that every surface in the School is mirrored, so that the girls can at all times see themselves and each other and be comparing features. My favourite touch, however, is that none of the female characters has a name that is capitalised. The few men we meet get capitals at the start of their names, and even get surnames, but the eves are property, and as such do not deserve proper names. Hell, even the drugs they’re being prescribed to keep them beautiful and controlled get capital letters, showing signs of a society where drugs are more important than women. There’s also a suggestion that the girls have chosen their own names, as the chastities refer to them all by number. The men, however, get impressive names, all seemingly stemming from great men of a long forgotten history – Darwin, Mahatma, Socrates, Albert, Sigmund, Winston, and so on.

While it’s obviously a fiction this book, like all good dystopian fiction it is a little bit too close for comfort. The eves are expected to be everything for their men, never say no to sex, and to remain beautiful at all times. We already seem to live in a world where women are judged solely on appearance in the media, and this is just taking the idea to its extreme. It’s worrying because it feels too familiar. And that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Male or female, this book is well worth reading as it might just open your eyes to the insanity of our world and what could happen if we let things go too far. I’m not suggesting that this stuff could actually happen, but it’s certainly food for thought. Think of it as Stepford Wives for the modern age, and you’re halfway there. Chilling, haunting, but incredibly smart.

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