I tend to read several books at a time. I tend to start books, pick up others, leave some unfinished. There might be an Audible I’m in the middle of at the same time I have two paperbacks going. The exception to this is when I get transfixed by a series. Three weeks ago I was listening to The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) whilst also going back and forth between The Sun is Also A Star (Nicola Yoon) and Fierce Kingdom (Gin Phillips). Currently I am enthralled by the words of William Ritter in the Jackaby series. Pausing for a moment today I reflected on the thing that all of these titles have in common: strong and independent women at their core. Now more than ever lovelies, it is important that we do not forget that we have vastly important stories to tell no matter what the genre. Whether a it is a new bestseller or a title that has resurfaced in a timely fashion there are an abundance of damsels who keep their heads while in distress. I’d like to take a moment to speak about these ladies who have been in my life of late and how they are having an impact on me.
With the current adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian future, in which religion and fear have allowed for a militant God group to take society’s reins, we are reminded of the tale Offred told us originally 19 years ago. The Handmaid’s Tale gives us exactly what the title states. June is the handmaid ofFred and his wife Serena and it is her duty within the household to provide a baby for the family. This is done through repeated rapes and captivity along with the continual reminder that it is woman’s sole purpose to breed. Gone are any basic human rights and contact with the outside world. Offred recounts her tale having lived this reality for several years. As readers, we slowly learn of Offred’s daily life and are given glimpses into how the world was able to get to this point. I am watching the series as I listen to the audiobook and must admit that I have not yet finished either so I am still learning about her journey. I am struck by how courageous Offred is and in contrast how many times I have thought to myself, could I hold my tongue? Could I be repeatedly defiled and not go crazy? Several times I have thought to myself, well that would have pushed me over the edge. Society within Gilead and sections of the United States are transformed into these stepford-ly fake worlds in which climate change has effected the air and people have become sterile. The handmaids are society’s last hope for continuing the human race. Talk about pressure. The will to not let the bastards get you down is a hopeful outlook that Offred gives us of her situation. I hope, as I keep reading, that that continues and she is able to stay strong. Luckily I have not had the end spoiled for me so I don’t know what happens. However I have heard that the endings of the two mediums differ (as the show has a second season pending). In Offred I have hope. In Offred I recognize how important it is to keep your wits.
The Sun is Also A Star is the word vomit of two teenagers who meet on the streets of New York. One is Natasha and one is Daniel and the chapters alternate their perspectives allowing us to be told the same story from two different takes on what is happening. Something that I love about Yoon’s characters is that they are so fully realized that it does not take you long to recognize that the way of learning what happens in this story is going to be very real to each of them. Natasha is on the verge of being deported with her family and love is literally the last thing on her mind. She is supposed to be applying to colleges and studying for the SATs. Instead she is visiting government buildings and lawyers offices and trying anyway she can think of to be allowed to stay in America. Daniel is supposed to be on his way to an interview with someone from Harvard and is completely distracted after coming across Natasha as she is on her way to speak with the aforementioned lawyer. Over the course of this stressful day, Natasha brightens up in Daniel’s presence. Yes, there are hormones involved and the concept of love at first sight is debated but there is more than that. It is not just that Daniel is a cute boy whom she quickly realizes she is crushing on, it is that she allows herself to open up to him and smile. The driving force of Natasha’s story is this incredibly adult situation that she is having to deal with. The issue of deportation is immediate and scary and she is determined to find a way out of being punished for her father’s mistakes (it is his fault they were found out as being illegal immigrants). Because Daniel is naive to her situation there is no pressure to talk about it or stress over it. Natasha has strong scientific and fact based beliefs and she holds them tightly. It is because of this that in Natasha I recognize conviction and determination and a stick-to-your-guns attitude that is incredibly refreshing.
The cover of Fierce Kingdom is deceptively boring. There are carousel horses on the front along with jarring red block letters spelling out the title and author. It is because of this judgement that the advanced copy sat on my shelf for months before I finally read it. If ever there was a case for the saying “don’t judge a book by the cover” this would be it. The zoo is closing and Joan and her son Lincoln are making their way to the front when they hear some popping sounds. A few pages later we get confirmation that these were gun shots when Joan rounds a corner and sees dead bodies. She quickly steers Lincoln away from the scene and from that moment on we are involved in a fast paced game of hide and seek, cat and mouse. Due to the fact that it was the end of the day, there are not that many people around so the zoo is eerie and quiet. The animals sense the danger and we go many pages without seeing a single other person. We are within Joan’s mind for much of the narration. The fear and anxiety that Joan feels is made to feel very present in Phillip’s writing. The use of short terse sentences, the occasional disoriented thought from Joan about Lincoln’s Avenger toys in her purse, the way that silence and sound play into your reading. Survival instincts are brought to the front of her mind. Joan is levelheaded throughout: she has to keep Lincoln calm and entertained (there is passage in which sleepy Lincoln, who is four-ish, is starting to get hungry and these two things combined do not make for a quiet toddler. High. Anxiety.) while also helping him avoid too much trauma (the sight of dead animals and people), and she has to make decisions that are very hard to make (there is a part that involves a baby that is just heartbreaking). In addition to Joan we gain the points of view of Kailynn, a girl who works in a concession stand at the zoo and get some minor character development in a Margaret Powell a local teacher. These three women come from different backgrounds and they are all trying to survive the night in this terrifying situation. All three are strong and courageous and it is in them that I see the strength to carry on.
The last heroine that I would like to gush about is in the books that I am currently reading. Miss Abigail Rook tells us of her adventures with the detective for whom the series and the first book are named. Jackaby is the opener of the books and it is within these pages that Abigail recounts to us the strange and not always natural cases she investigates as the assistant of the detective. Much like Robin in the Cormoran Strike novels, Abigail is not content being an assistant who sits out of the cases whose notes she will inevitably end up transcribing. She is pulled immediately in to one, in fact, as she is in the process of convincing Jackaby to hire her while he is on his way to a crime scene. The series takes place in the 1890s and people tend to have preconceived notions of what a woman’s behavior looks like (it is full circle from the first title if you think about it…Offred having had her rights taken away, Abigail fighting to gain and maintain them…not a good circle, just something I noticed). Because of these notions people are constantly surprised by the tenacity and confidence exhibited by Miss Rook. After being told her whole life that her place was with the ladies in the parlor and not out in the field working with her paleontologist father, Abigail takes off with her school money and runs away to find her own freedom. As she reaches the shores of America (having gone on a couple of adventures between leaving England and arriving in New England), Abigail is able to find her footing and carves her own path with a clear sense of determination. I mean, imagine how it was back then, arriving on the shores of a foreign country and not knowing anyone and being a woman on top of that. Sure that is still something people do today but with the advancements in technology it isn’t the same. While she is a young lady in man’s world and while she has doubts and uncertainties about her path, she doesn’t let thisdeter her. One thing that I like about Abigail is that even when she is told no, she explores other ways to make it a yes. In Abigail I see a woman who is not afraid to stand up for herself and others in an effort to pursue what is right and just.
I briefly mentioned above the Cormoran Strike series and one of the primary characters, Robin. While this is not a current read (although I hope to the bibliogod that book four is coming out soon) it is also one to keep in mind when looking for a read with a strong female lead. She is a wonderful character and it is refreshing to have these two women (Abigail and Robin) in these detective stories as the genre is usually dominated by men. Additionally, next up on my list of must reads is a new American Gothic by Claire Messud called The Burning Girl in which we experience the ups and downs of a childhood friendship (and of course there is a creepy castle).
All of this is to say that for years growing up I had all of these wonderful boys and men leading me on my journeys; they took charge of situations and performed brave deeds. But where would Harry have been without Hermione? Would Holden have had any grounding if it weren’t for his sister? How far could Eragon have gotten if it weren’t for Saphira? Women are so often the backing these main characters need but these stories also show that we deserve and are capable of having our own adventures.