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When She Woke

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When She Woke is a fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, who embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

Bellwether Prize Winner Hillary Jordan's provocative new novel is the fiercely imagined story of a woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed -- their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crime -- and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.

344 pages, Hardcover

First published October 4, 2011

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About the author

Hillary Jordan

9 books1,278 followers
Hillary Jordan is the author of two novels: MUDBOUND and WHEN SHE WOKE, as well as the digital short "Aftermirth," all published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

MUDBOUND won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize debut novels of social justice, and an Alex Award from the American Library Association. PASTE Magazine named it one of the Top 10 Debut Novels of the Decade, and it was a 2013 World Book Night selection.

WHEN SHE WOKE was one of BookPage’s Best Books of 2011. It was long-listed for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was a Lamda Award finalist.

Hillary's books have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Serbian, Swedish, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazil), Turkish and Chinese (Taiwan and Hong Kong).

Hillary grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. She received her BA from Wellesley College and her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn, along with half the writers in America.

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Profile Image for Emily May.
1,993 reviews298k followers
March 30, 2012

I wish I could write two reviews for When She Woke, one for the first half of the book and another for the second. Unfortunately, this is not one of those books that I can say starts off not so good but finishes on a high note; on the contrary, the first half was one of the strongest dystopian openings I've read in a long while and the second was just, well... a mess.

The first half of this book was at least a solid four stars. It was well-paced, fast without feeling rushed, and it was very clear to me how such a society could easily be developed. I don't know how many times I've criticised dystopian books because of their lack of explanation, it's almost as if the author doesn't know themselves how their imagined society would have come about. This isn't the case in When She Woke. It isa story where the religious right in the US have basically taken over. Abortion is now illegal and women nearly always stay in the home in order to most effectively benefit their husbands. This is all very The Handmaid's Tale-ish. Then comes the whole The Scarlet Letter side of things. I have never read that book so I cannot compare the two, but all you need to know is that criminals are chromed a colour to match their crime and released back into a society that shuns them. It sounds a little ridiculous but I found it rather easy to believe in.

Hannah has had an abortion and therefore is chromed red for murder. I found so many elements of the first half appealing, Hannah's fear of those around her, the religious guilt she feels over the abortion itself, but also the lingering idea in the back of her mind that maybe her punishment isn't fair after all. It is essentially about trying to forgive oneself first and foremost before you can expect forgiveness from anywhere else - and I like that notion. There's also a touch of romance in this book, but it is told in a few flashbacks and doesn't swamp the story because Hannah has bigger concerns right now. It's also gritty and rather unpleasant at times but, I have to admit, I quite like this in books so it didn't bother me.

What did bother me was the stupid second half of the book. It's so disappointing when a book lets you down and you can feel the stars start to drop away with every page you read. I'm going to list it in points what I found to be wrong with the second half:

1) Religious Propaganda - I'm not entirely sure what the author was intending by turning the book into a godfest but the second half of the book was ALL about religion. In the first half it was more subtle, it looked at both sides of religion and didn't seem to push for one or the other. But the general message of the book seems to be that life is pointless without religion, that without God life is meaningless. Perhaps you agree, but I don't and I don't want religious ideas spoon-fed to me.

2) Rushed Pacing - Everything seemed to blow up all of a sudden that resulted in a series of near captures, near rapes, sexual encounters... and though a lot of time must have passed, it felt so rushed that the characters seemed to go across the United States in an unbelievably short amount of time. It was a bit of a mess, to be honest. If you like those books that are like "nearly captured... oh my god, run!" and the next minute "nearly raped... oh my god, run!" this will probably suit your reading needs more than mine.

3) Hannah's Contradictory Character - In the first half, Hannah seemed to resent the restrictions of her religion, openly criticises her upbringing and especially the gender double standards, female subserviance, etc. In the second half, she is repulsed by gay people and says she never doubted that a woman is supposed to be subservient to her husband. Um, actually... I think you did. Several times, in fact.


5) Lack Of Closure - For some characters, anyway. There are some people that greatly influence the novel's direction and become a big part of Hannah's life... and then they are simply written out without explanation. It seemed wrong that the author got me to invest a lot of emotion into these supporting characters and then didn't even give me any idea where they ended up. Maybe it was left up to our imagination? Well, it didn't work right for me.

A problematic book to rate because of the warring halves, one I loved and the other that should never have been written. Such a shame, I hope more forgiving readers will find this book and be able to appreciate it more than I could.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
December 29, 2022
Hillary Jordan has raised a red flag about how the powers of American religious extremism might change our world. Set in the not-too-distant future, When She Woke (WSW) is an update of The Scarlet Letter (TSL), accompanied by a healthy dollop of The Handmaid’s Tale (THT).

Hillary Jordan- image from her site - photo by Mark Erwin

In a theocratic USA, Hannah Payne is punished for having an abortion by having her entire body turned red. In this new America many crimes are punishable by melachroming, or coloring a person’s entire body, a much larger version of the scarlet “A” that Hester Prynne was forced to wear. The result of this is an entire class of people who are socially cast out for being “melachromes.” Which makes one think of Russell Banks’ recent look at ostracism in The Lost Memory of Skin.”

Hannah is a sympathetic character, but one filled with contradictions. Having been raised in a strict religious household she always did as she was told and did not look beyond the confines of her environmental box. But once she comes to a sense of her sexual/romantic needs and desires, she breaks out in a big way, sleeping with the charismatic, megachurch reverend hottie. Hannah manages to find someone willing to help her and has an abortion, for which she is sentenced, among other things, to 16 years with red skin, and the resulting public shunning. While this book is focused on social commentary, it is hardly cold and removed. Hannah journeys from ignorance and passivity to strength and control of her own decisions.

References to The Scarlet Letter permeate the tale. I have listed a bunch at the bottom of this review, but they include spoiler material. Suffice it to say, for now, that references to TSL are many. There are some that might slip one’s notice, and I am certain that I missed a fair number, but short of sitting down with a copy of TSL and going through both books side by side, I will make do with what I spotted.

Jordan says that she was not looking to mimic TSL, but to riff on it. In fact the initial notion for the novel came from a family conversation about drug abuse. An uncle suggested that drugs should be made legal, but should turn users bright blue. The stigmatization notion stuck, if not necessarily the drug idea.

I have not read or seen an interview in which Jordan talks about the influence of The Handmaid’s Tale, but there are plenty of obvious connections there as well. A widespread fertility crisis of uncertain provenance, here called “the scourge,” has made procreation problematic. As with THT, a terrorist attack provides the justification for a theocratic national takeover. An underground group, the Novembrists, serves a role similar to that of the Mayday Movement in Margaret Atwood’s work. There are more, but you get the idea. (just a maybe here, but the Octobrists in Russia were not a revolutionary group but one that wanted to restore a constitutional monarchy. I wondered if Jordan had them in mind, as her band of merry rebels professes a narrow interest and not a revolutionary one. I seriously doubt she was referring to the indie band) “We are feminists, not revolutionaries,” one of them says, as if feminism were not revolutionary.

The story is fluid, and keeps one involved, even though it is clear that this is more than just a this-happened-then-that-happened novel. One can relate to Hannah as someone who is abused by the system, and we can root for her as her recognition of the massive hypocrisy all around her grows, and she struggles, not only to grow as a person, but to fight back, to survive and maybe thrive despite her encumbrances.

That works, but only to a point. I felt that Hannah’s journey took too much of a detour in the final sections of the book. Not enough to kill the book for me, but enough to make me wish Jordan had not wandered so far afield with her characters as to challenge our willingness to suspend disbelief. So be prepared.

This is primarily, IMHO, a political novel, and as such there are some contemporary allusions to go along with the classical lit references. The prison in which Hannah is detained is in Crawford, TX. Maybe all the brush has been cleared by now. In a fundamentalist half-way house for released prisoners the residents are referred to as Walkers, which certainly reminded me of a certain Texas Ranger. Congress has passed a Freedom From Information Act, and “Enlightenment” at a half-way house includes forcing the women to watch gory presentations on abortion, including talks by people whose parents had tried to abort them, and damaged them instead. These reflect the view that many of us share, that there is much to fear from the darker and dimmer elements of the religious right. Could it happen here? You betcha! It does not take a lot of imagination to believe that those who, at recent (2011) Republican debates, clearly favored allowing the uninsured to die, who applauded the execution policies prevalent in Texas, who believe that all the unemployed are personally responsible for their own lack of work, who would love nothing more than to construct a death-dealing electrified fence on our southern border, and who favor the murder of abortion providers, would be more than happy to dust off their white sheets and mark for life any who do not adhere to their peculiar philosophy. There are underground railroad references aplenty as well, which nicely connects the new slavery to the old.

One gripe I had with the book was that Jordan sometimes felt it necessary to take the reader by the hand and explain her imagery to us. One theme of the story is boxes, limitations. Here is Jordan going too far [There is spoiler material in the quote. You have been warned]:
“I could write a book on the subject.” One by one. She conjured all the boxes she’d been put into: The good girl box and the good Christian box. The confines of her sewing room above the garage. The Mistress box, played out in the boxes of all those indistinguishable hotel rooms. The sweltering room in apartment 122. The jail cell, the interrogation room, the witness box at her trial. The bad daughter and fallen woman boxes. Her red body in the mirrored cell on the Chrome ward, a box within a box within a box. The enlightenment room, Mrs Henley’s parlor. The locked rooms at the safe house and at Stanton’s. The wooden crate. And now, for the second time, the trunk of a car…
In another scene, one character is washing another’s hair, pouring water over the cleanee’s head. Jordan felt it necessary to refer to this as a strange form of baptism. Duh-uh. Do you have to spell that out? There are other times when this is done. It strikes me as a miss by the editor, but who knows? Still, a pet peeve for me

Overall, this is a pretty good read, with an engaging primary character, a bit of action, and a lot of social consciousness. It might be of particular relevance for younger sorts who might not have read The Scarlet Letter or The Handmaid’s Tale. One of the nice things about books that so overtly reference prior work is that they present us with an opportunity to brush up our knowledge of the classics.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Jordan’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

My review of Jordan's 2008 novel, Mudbound

I presume that closer study will unearth more such refs, but this is what came to the surface for me. There were too many to put them all into the body of the review, but I can contain them no more than Executive Officer Kane on the good ship Nostromo could contain what was inside him.

The Scarlet Letter references I found

The primary characters’ names share the same initials of their tSL counterparts; Hannah Payne – Hester Prynne – Aidan Dale is Arthur Dimmesdale

The red of Hannah’s skin is a public sign of her crime as Hester’s scarlet letter “A” was hers

Hester is impregnated by a charismatic reverend – ditto for Hannah

Hannah and Hester both refuse to divulge the men responsible for their conditions

Just as Hester was made to endure three hours of public shaming on a scaffold, Hannah must endure a month in what is, to her, solitary confinement—in a section of the novel titled, ”The Scaffold”—but which is, to the world, the fodder of reality television, as her cell is under video surveillance, and streaming, twenty-four-seven, a more modern form of public humiliation. One can imagine which network that would be on.

Hester was a seamstress – ditto Hannah

Just as Hester embroidered a stunning “A” for her clothing, so Hannah uses her skill as a seamstress to create beauty in an object meant to induce shame. Both acts incur jealousy and disapproval.

A life-affirming rosebush outside a prison gate plays the same role here that it did in the earlier work.

The hypocrisy of the powers that be in WSW match those of the early American version

Both Hannah and Hester grow from naïve young ladies to strong, self-directed women

Both Hannah and Hester question their religious beliefs

As for The Handmaid’s Tale

In addition to the parallels noted in the text of the review,

In THT, the heroine gains the friendship of someone whose knowledge and attitude help her come to some new realizations. In WSW, Kayla serves that role.

A theocratic death squad called The Fist might correlate with The Eyes in THT. They both travel in a large vans and do the leaders’ dirty work. Stretching a bit, The Fist might also echo The Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist organization that, like The Fist, organized into cells of three to five members. Unlike The Fist, The Black Hand helped start WW I by assassinating the archduke. Who knows, maybe The Fist was responsible for nuking LA in this one.


There is a nod to Oliver Twist, another person victimized by a hypocritical society. When Hannah is being released from her month of solitary, she is crudely propositioned by a brutish guard named Billy Sikes, recalling Fagin’s thuggish enforcer. The meager portions provided at Hannah’s halfway house had me wondering if someone would be elected to ask for more.

Aidan’s alias for trysts with Hannah is Edward Ferrars, a character from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Aidan refers to his wife, Alyssa, as his Elinor, the woman Edward Ferrars rejects in order to honor a promise he made to another young lady, in this case, Hannah.

There is a love scene in the dark that made me think of Beauty and the Beast, but I am not completely confident of that

The Novembrist members all use noms-de-guerre taken from famous historical Americans

The so-called Sanctity of Life or SOL laws make one think of a more widespread meaning for those three letters.

Other Items
-----December 28, 2018 - A Woman’s Rights - a collection of articles that look at the nation-wide right-wing attack on abortion rights. Serious stuff, worth checking out
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,945 followers
May 13, 2012
This was a four-star book until the last 80 or so pages, and then it lost its way. So 3.5 stars it is.

The novel starts off strong with a tale of private shame made very public, and gleeful cruelty masquerading as religious piety. I saw some spooky parallels with the way Warren Jeffs was controlling the FLDS Church a few years ago.

Jordan takes the basic themes from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and brings them into the future with the addition of abortion and extreme fundamentalist rule. Hannah Payne (Hester Prynne) and Aidan Dale (Arthur Dimmesdale) have had an affair. She's a young innocent parishioner. He's a married preacher with a huge following and a spotless reputation. Hannah has aborted their love child. Instead of a scarlet letter, she is punished with a scarlet body.

In this version of America, most criminals serve out their sentences among the general populace rather than behind bars. Their skin is "melachromed" red, yellow, green or blue, depending on their crimes. Being marked in this way makes them outcasts, subject to derision, physical attacks, and even death threats. Prison would seem a more merciful punishment.

After her initial chroming and public humiliation period, Hannah stays in a halfway house meant to prepare her for re-entering society as a "Red." She then makes a series of stops along a sort of futuristic underground railroad. Here is where the novel begins to go off the tracks, so to speak. It slowly collapses on itself with a tedious journey and a rushed ending that is too inconclusive to warrant the buildup. The quick foray into lesbianism is awkward and unrealistic, and thus feels obligatory rather than purposeful.

I was disappointed that Hannah didn't emerge more strengthened by her ordeal. I think Jordan hoped to show a transformation from a mousy, obedient evangelical girl into a fearless, bold, and resourceful woman. Whatever transformation does occur is too fast to be plausible. Hannah never quite reaches the state of maturity and self-knowledge we might wish for her. She's left mired in that late-adolescent stage of defiance versus dependence.

I do recommend the book, despite my middling rating. Just don't expect a strong finish to match the powerful beginning.

Profile Image for Hillary.
Author 9 books1,278 followers
October 5, 2011
"If you must read one book this year, make it WHEN SHE WOKE." —Hillary's mom
Profile Image for Celeste.
933 reviews2,382 followers
March 29, 2017
Warning: Due to the heavy religious tone of the book, this review is going to be religious in nature and will in large part be a discussion of my faith. If you’re offended by this, please feel free to skip reading this particular review.

Some books disturb you psychologically. For authors like King and Koontz and Barker, that psychological fear is their bread and butter, and many of us will pay good money to be frightened. But then there are the books that disturb you on a moral level. A spiritual level. And often, though I’m sure not always, these books are not written with marketing in mind. These books are written because the author has something to say and will burst if they don’t get to vent their anger and concern and fear onto paper, and it doesn’t really matter to them if no one ever reads a word of it. But books like this, like 1984 and The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid's Tale, will always be picked up but a like-minded reader and passed on to like-minded friends, and perhaps even friends whose minds have rusted shut at the hinges, hinges that creak open reluctantly with every page they read. Because the unknown is always questioned and feared, and what greater unknown is there than the future? If we read to know that we’re not alone, we also read (and write) to know that we’re not alone in our questions and our fears.

When She Woke disturbed me on a moral and spiritual level. Here is a society where religion is king, and has begun to mandate law. I’m a Christian. I believe that God is real, that He created everything that exists, that He is involved in our lives, that He sent His Son to die so we could have freedom and eternity, that life is sacred, that I have been blessed beyond measure, that He has been there with me in my darkest hours and that I will never have to suffer anything alone. I believe all these things with all of my heart. And yet the only thing that scares me as much as a world where religion is outlawed is a world in which religion is THE law. God created us with free will, with the inalienable right to choose for ourselves whether or not we will follow Him, and that’s a right that no government on earth should have the power to take away. To quote the book itself:

“You don’t have to stop thinking and asking questions to believe in God, child. If He’d wanted a flock of eight billion sheep, He wouldn’t have given us opposable thumbs, much less free will.”

I’m not going to get into the plot of the book itself here, though I will say that the comparison made on the back cover claiming the story is “The Scarlet Letter by way of The Handmaid’s Tale” is completely accurate. It was a well-written, thought provoking story that will stick with you long after you finish the last page, and I’m glad I read it. I will say, however, that this book made me incredibly sad. Please be aware that this was not Christian fiction, but is instead a book that portrays Christianity as one of its villains. It’s hard to see your faith twisted in such a way that it ruins the lives of others, even if those lives and others are fictional. Christians can be some of the most unforgiving and judgmental people on the planet, which has to infuriate Jesus. He spent His time with fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes and beggars, with the poor and the broken and those rejected by society. He was despised by those who should have recognized Him, and He died for it. Thankfully, that death couldn’t hold Him and He rose again three days later, but that doesn’t negate the pain and torment He endured at the hands of the very people He had come to save. And if He had chosen to come a couple thousand years later, I think He would have met the same fate; it just would have been televised. Todd Agnew wrote in one of his songs that “My Jesus would never be accepted in my church; the blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet.” Harsh, but true.

Jesus told His disciples on the night of His arrest, “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35) THAT is supposed to be how the world knows we’re Christians. Not by the words we spout or the bumper stickers on our cars or the way we look down our noses at others. And I hope and I pray every single day that people see the love of Jesus in me when I interact with them, not judgement or hatred. Because Jesus doesn’t hate. God doesn’t hate. God is love. And if we remember this, if we do our best each day to live this, then the future forecast in this book will never become a reality.

For more of my reviews, as well as my own fiction and thoughts on life, check out my blog, Celestial Musings.
Profile Image for Meghan.
122 reviews4 followers
January 22, 2012
This book started out good, but was really just a poor man's A Handmaid's Tale. The final nail in the coffin was the contrived lesbian experience near the end- because gaining religious and social freedoms and becoming a feminist apparently changes your sexual orientation as well. 2 stars for the good idea, but overall disappointing.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Beverly.
835 reviews313 followers
December 31, 2018
A quite good sci-fi novel, When She Woke tells the story of a future United States in which crimes are punished by chroming. According to what the offense is your skin is dyed that color. Hannah Payne (the Scarlet Letter is paid homage to throughout) refuses to divulge the name of her lover or her abortionist, so she receives the maximum sentence, 16 years with her skin dyed red and she must survive somehow out on the streets as a pariah in the ultra religious society that the U.S. has become. Anyone can attack her and get away with it, the police won't protect her.
What was different about the story is how someone who is a part of the system reacts when they are kicked out of it. She is a person who questioned the world somewhat as a teenager and young adult, but eventually just became a part of it. When arrested and vilified, Hester must begin growing and stretching her worldview.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,178 followers
July 22, 2014
Oh dear. A dystopian novel with echoes of The Handmaid's Tale (which I love) and The Scarlet Letter (which I haven't read) sounded promising. It was dreadful.

I'm not a big fan of "How to write" checklists; they're usually far too prescriptive, and very negative (a list of don'ts). However, I found myself wanting to shriek "Show, don't tell" every few pages. I kept reading only because I had time on my hands and thought it could only get better (it didn't).


Hannah is a good(ish), 26-year old Christian girl, whose only vice is secretly making beautiful, slightly immodest, clothes, that she only wears in secret. The story opens as she wakes after having an illegal abortion (all abortions are illegal), having been recoloured as part of her punishment.

The story is a daisy-chain of clichés: a fertility pandemic ("superclap"!), an illicit affair that's horribly Mills & Boon (at least, I think it is- I don't actually read M&B), an unwanted pregnancy, theocratically inspired police-state, bizarre and extreme punishment, Big Brother monitoring, imprisonment (loads more clichés there), brainwashing, a dash of nanotech, who to trust, an arbitrary deadline that is then forgotten about, and half a dozen others.

The only original idea, which has potential, is melachroming as a punishment. Prison is expensive, and recidivism high, so instead, offenders have their skin coloured (the colour relating to the type of crime) for the period of their sentence, and are released to an unwelcoming society, after a month of incarceration on 24/7 reality TV, like Big Brother. They usually end up homeless, jobless and ultimately lifeless.

Making colour the focus of the story also has potential for interesting parallels with racism, but there aren't really any, other than a passing observation that racism still exists, but that Chromes suffer far greater stigma than ethnic minorities.


If only. It was painfully banal, spelling out everything in crassly obvious ways, rather that letting the reader interpret what isn't a particularly difficult story.

Maybe it would work better as a film?

For example, a cold, unpleasant woman called Bridget is nicknamed Fridget. Fine. But just in case you can't work out why, Jordan has to spell it out, "The woman's an iceberg". I could pick out more examples, but it's the relentless and cumulative effect of so many of them that I found so infuriating. But here are a couple more, mainly for my future reference:

The sledgehammer approach applies to metaphors as well: "Their attraction grew slowly... like a pregnancy during which they were both waiting, with equal degrees of excitement and trepidation, for the inevitable emergence of the new thing they were creating between them." Ugh. When locked in a car boot/trunk "She lay in the blackness, stroking her friend's warm hand, waiting to be born". And it's not just pregnancy metaphors; there are Christian themes, so when having her hear washed, "Warm water streamed from the crown of Hannah's head down her scalp. What a strange baptism, she thought."

It's worst of all with the bloody boxes. It's clear enough that they're a recurring theme (literal and metaphorical), but lest you miss it, there's a handy list of them on page 268 and a couple of other explicit references to not wanting to be boxed in again.

Language is important in the abortion debate. For instance, the appropriation of the term "pro-life" creates a problem for those who dislike abortion, but think it should be an option. Using emotive terms like "murder", rather than clinical ones like "procedure" have weight and bias, too. These issues are touched on a couple of times, but it's like sociology or linguistics 101.


By tackling the horrors that can arise from strict prohibition of abortion, I expected this to be a liberal-minded book, and although I can see why Jordan wouldn't want to alienate more ambivalent readers by coming across as pro-abortion (not that I think anyone is actually PRO-abortion), this sits very oddly with the discomfort I felt at the way homosexuality and possibly transvestism were tackled.

Hannah's church thinks homosexuality is a sin (though not all the churches in her world do), and it's a while before Hannah questions that. When she does, it's very sudden and unconvincing: . I see sexual attraction as a spectrum, rather than two or three fixed categories, but it just didn't ring true for me.

Related to that, sex seems to be a magical cure for past abuses, . Ugh.

Transvestism Analogy?
Hannah's impetus for making her secret clothes is described in ways I've often heard transvestites describe their cross-dressing. This felt rather strange and maybe inappropriate: "Though she'd known she could never wear them openly, the mere fact of their existence, their prodigal beauty, had buoyed her". " For myself... I have to make them, or I'll explode", and he understands, "They're an essential part of you. A part you can't express any other way."


It's a patriarchal society, so, at least in church families, the dress codes for women are quite strict, but not for men (as you'd expect), but again, we are told, not shown. Inevitably, all the blame and punishment for abortions falls on the women and abortionists; the fathers may be named and fined, but I don't think they become Chromes.


One positive message is the idea that there are different ways to God, even to a Christian God, and this is presented even-handedly, and left open-ended.


There are many, which means Jordan must be reasonably well-read, which makes the fact this is so poorly written harder to understand.

At one point, Hannah finds a few lines of a poem about Menelaus and Helen of Troy carved under some furniture, but unlike almost everything else in the story, this isn't explained. (It's never referred to again, either.)

Like The Handmaid's Tale, this is set in the near future, in north America, when fertility has been damaged, so strict religion is used to limit women's sexual freedom and fertility. However, in this society, not everyone in religious; for instance, Hannah's colleague is open about her promiscuity. As long as she never tries to get an abortion, it's apparently OK.

In Handmaid, no specific religion is named; in this, it refers explicitly to Christians, except once, when Mormons are mentioned (I know they describe themselves as Christians, but many other denominations don't agree) and the fact that Utah "was the nexus of the conservative backlash". I don't know if it's intended as a specific attack on Mormons or not.

As in Handmaid, colours and clothes are highly significant, and instead of tulips, there are a couple of orchids.

Jane Austen gets an explicit mention as the name of one of her characters is used as a code name.

The resistance use code names that are all the names of famous 20th century feminists.

There's a sinister character whose name is nearly the same as a dodgy Dickens character (Billy Sykes), but as he's just a fleeting appearance, I wonder if it's just a gimmick, as with Austen.

I can't comment on echoes of The Scarlett Letter; see Will's excellent review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...


There were a few phrases that worked well, or raised a (probably unintended) smile:

* "The quintessential minister's wife: demure and gracious, pretty without being beautiful enough to cause resentment."

* "A voice like honey poured thinly over granite."

* Chromes have to use the Drive-Thru; the server is careful not to touch her, but "he did, however, remember to thank her and wish her a McWonderful day."

* "Parenthesis appeared at the corner of his mouth, bracketing a sad little smile."

* Percussion used like this? "His heart, which was beating in wild contrapuntal percussion to the hard steady cadence of her own."

* Someone has "lambent" eyelashes, which is a bit of a weird image (later, someone else has lambent eyes, so I guess it's an editing oversight). Another editing failure is the French Canadian who speaks perfect English at first, but later, it's distinctly unidiomatic and stilted.

And if you're ever on the run and want to plan a route, try this: "Show quickest route... avoiding all known checkpoints". Oh well, at least it made me laugh.
Profile Image for Steph.
262 reviews264 followers
April 14, 2015
How absolutely cool is the premise of this book? In this dystopian society, skin is genetically mutated a certain color to paint convicts to represent their crimes. Red skin means murderer. In this society, red skin also means someone who has had an abortion, a procedure that has been deemed illegal now that Roe V. Wade has been overturned. This novel had the potential to be as frightening as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a novel that didn't seem entirely far fetched when it was published, and still does not in a world where women still have to fight for their right to have complete control over their bodies. I think books of this nature are especially important given the current fight over birth control that has cropped up as candidates fight to challenge Obama in this year's election. People like Rush Limbaugh really exist. There are groups of people out there who want a world like this one to be the one we live in. Books like this one are almost realistic fiction when you think about it like that. Terrifying.

The novel starts out strong. Hannah Payne has recently been transformed to become a Chrome, her skin mutated Red, to represent her crime of abortion. She must live her days on camera inside of jail, where her every move is being broadcasted to people at home for their entertainment. Experiencing with Hannah her first moments as a Chrome, alone in solitary, is deeply intimate. Because of her perceived crime Hannah is subjected to humiliation and psychological torture. It was very interesting and painful to be inside of Hannah's head as she dealt with this experience.

Hannah is soon released and dropped off in a religious facility aimed at "curing" women chromes and bringing them back to the light of Jesus or whatever. This section of the book actually wasn't half bad. There were definitely some great points made using Hannah's experiences in that facility; perhaps Jordan should not have been so heavy handed with the message and allowed the "evil" characters to be humanized a bit. A particularly frightening thing about this facility was that Hannah and others were forced to create and carry around dolls that represented the "child" they aborted.

Once Hannah leaves the facility things get a little far fetched. She joins a sort of underground program put in place by those that oppose the new government and after that it is one unbelievable situation after another. Hannah's narrative is also a little weird. She still considers herself a murderer, even if she doesn't believe she deserves all of the ways she's been treated, and that is never resolved. I also didn't buy her loyalty to the father of the fetus, or why she would put entire groups of people at risk just to see him one last time. Also, there is a brief segue into lesbianism that would have had more meaning if it had, well, meant anything at all and didn't seem to be just a convenient plot point to represent Hannah's supposed awakening.

I think this book would have been far better served if it had focused on Hannah being made an outcast by society as a whole, and the treatment she would have received trying to live a normal life as a Red, in a world where abortion is legally viewed as murder.

I'm mixed on whether or not I'd recommend this one. It was a fairly enjoyable read, the idea of chromes was fantastic, the feminist themes were important, but in the end it fell short of everything it was trying to accomplish. I'd much rather recommend The Handmaid's Tale instead.
Profile Image for Crystal Starr Light.
1,357 reviews831 followers
February 19, 2014
Bullet Review:


You know, up until the last, what, hour of this audiobook, I was fully intending to give it 3 stars. It has its faults, but you know, it tries. It's no "The Handmaid's Tale", but it tries.

And then we have to go and have that *censored* scene! And gorrammit, that ruined the message of the book for me. RUINED.

Message: 4 stars
Characters: 2 stars
Book up until last hour: 3 stars
Book after THAT SCENE: 1 star
Final Rating: 1 star

Maybe if you haven't read 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale or any better dystopian fiction out there, this would be OK. And sure, it's better than the sh!tstorm of dystopian fiction now flooding the market after The Hunger Games. But this is no story about a woman's journey. It's a story about a woman whining after a man.

And I think because Jordan is a half-decent writer with a half-decent world is what makes this story even more infuriating. Because it COULD be good with some minor tweaking. It COULD have a fabulous message, empowering to women and men and everyone. But noooooooo...let's just destroy that in the last few pages because why not!

Not recommended.

Full Review:

Hannah Payne has now been chromed - a process to punish people while alleviating the pressure on the jail system - for the abortion of a child she conceived while sleeping with her minister. She must struggle through a world that tells her at every opportunity that what she did was wrong while also learning more and more about herself.

I should love this book. In many ways, Hannah's journey is not all that different from mine. I lived similarly secluded in my evangelical right-wing movement, thinking that homosexuals were going to hell, that abortion was murder, and that anyone who didn't go to my denomination of church was ending up in hell. (You will be glad to know that I no longer believe all those things.) The book is also more fact than fiction, particularly if you are familiar with the Wendy Davis filibuster that occurred in Texas just this past summer. Reading about the shunning of women, how few options they have, how they are vilified for trying to make a good life - that's enough to make you rage at the system. And for that, the book is great.

That said, I ended up not liking the book very, very much - mostly in part to one final key scene that seemed to ruin the entire message of the book. But there were plenty of other key points that drove the rating down, not just the ending.

But first, the positives:

+ Jordan has a very easy-going, readable writing style.

+ Jordan's dystopian world made sense. I could easily see us reaching the point where abortions were outlawed and the religious right rose up and abolished the separation of church vs state.

+ There were a few characters that weren't too bad, namely Kayla and Simone.

+ I didn't mind Hannah's development - up until about the last hour of the audiobook, of course. I could see her slowly open up, to take the people she meets and realize, yes, they aren't so bad, that maybe her previous way of thinking wasn't the only way.

But I have far more negatives:

+ Hannah is an awful character. I really, really can't get over how selfish and using she is, nor how blindly passive she is (all the while claiming how she "chose" to do this or that). Nearly every person she comes in contact with, she finds some way to soak something out of - her father, Kayla, Simone, even Aiden (and I do NOT like Aiden). And then, Hannah claims to be so active, to make all these choices, but when you boil it down, she mostly just bounces between crazy events.

+ The rest of the cast is lackluster. The women are incredibly evil or weak, from Hannah's shrewish, domineering hateful mother to Mrs. Henley (a hateful, beastly woman) to the cold, infertile Alyssa to the weak, desperate Becca. Not to mention, Hannah makes sure to cast judgment on every one, from how pretty they aren't or how desparate they are.

"She saw a perky blonde news anchor, the annoying type still trying at 40 to be adorable."

The men are mostly passive and inept (Hannah's father and Aiden) or, in a couple of cases (such as Cole), evil. And then you have Aiden, our "Love Interest", who is second only to Hannah in selfishness. For a man who supposedly loves this woman, why did he never speak out sooner? Sacrifice his career, his fame, his reputation to speak on her behalf? Oh, no, couldn't do that! We must protect the man, the privileged man in this patriarchal society!

+ The lesbian experience. Really, this was merely tossed in there to be edgy. I can't say it enough - Hannah never once came across as wanting to be a lesbian or even bisexual, until suddenly, boom, it happened. It's VERY insulting, and not to mention, once again Hannah uses someone for her own selfish purposes. And then tosses that person aside for Aiden.

This is not to say this scene couldn't have worked. It could have - if Hannah hadn't bothered to go back to Aiden. Or if when she did, she realized how she really didn't love him anymore. THEN I would have been OK with this scene. But as it is written, it makes me despise Hannah even more.

+ Aiden is the most selfish, useless, pathetic, cowardly Love Interest I've ever read. I despise the man. Time and again, we are led to believe he loves Hannah - but what has the man ever done to prove it? He said outright in the beginning he'd never leave his wife for Hannah - strike one. When Hannah was arrested, he never spoke out on her behalf - strike two. Hannah has to drive across country to meet up with him - strike three, and you're out!

+ The final scene. Given the book we're reading, it comes out of nowhere and, for me, completely ruins the message of the book. In fact, that ending makes as much sense to me as having the the power of lurve remove the chroming with Aiden and Hannah miraculously changing the government and farting out three babies.

+ The book's message feels undermined. If this book were really about Hannah's development as a woman, she would grow up and realize how selfish a prick Aiden was. How little he sacrificed and how much power he would have to help her. Instead, she protects him, the fly protecting the swatter, the subjugated holding up the ones in power. You know, what's been going on for the last hundred years.

What does Aiden have to lose? Nothing. He's a male in a patriarchal society. Everyone will side with him - "Poor preacher, being seduced by that vile woman!" Even today, we see that ALL THE TIME. Teenaged girls being blamed for their sexual abuse. Adulterers getting off the hook because those vile women in short, tight skirts.

Aiden commits adultery, has little regard for his wife, doesn't bother to help Hannah - but somehow, he's worth Hannah sacrificing her freedom to see him. Even in the end, he doesn't abandon his job to seek her out; no, that would be much too much to sacrifice. Instead, Hannah has to brave the streets, arrest, incarceration, further abuse, to seek HIM out. And after she uses him (has sex), she decides that she's outgrown him and needs to leave him.

No, Hannah, you don't. You have become just as selfish and despicable as Aiden.

You know how this book should have ended? Hannah goes back to find that Aiden has hopped into bed with some other woman that isn't his wife. Aiden isn't there waiting and begging for her; he just wants to find a playmate to keep him busy. Then Hannah should grow some ovaries and help find Kayla, maybe even get back with Simone and have a real relationship instead of some half-assed "Lemme pretend to be a lesbian because ooooh, it's edgy and cool but don't worry I'm still straight!"

+ Ultimately, this book is just The Handmaid's Tale (and apparently The Scarlet Letter, though I haven't read that one) lite. It's a very, very weak diluted version of THT, with nowhere near the strength of character or the powerful message - or the decency to give us a good, gritty ending.

Personally, I don't recommend this for anyone. I'd rather see people read The Handmaid's Tale. But I suppose if you haven't read THT, this has a somewhat OK message (with a grain of salt). If it hadn't been for that final scene, I would definitely have rated it higher and been a bit more generous with my recommendation.
153 reviews102 followers
September 10, 2011
I really loved this book. Not only was the plot compelling and fast-paced, but the issues explored in the story (abortion, religion, justice, feminism, individualism, etc) were pretty thought-provoking.

The author also did a fantastic job creating complex, believable, intensely human characters. Hannah's personal development through the course of the novel in particular was well done.

Great read, highly recommended.
Profile Image for Shannon .
1,221 reviews2,213 followers
August 20, 2012
"When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign."

So begins When She Woke, the gripping near-future story of Hannah Payne who pays for her crime of aborting the foetus in her womb by being sentenced to sixteen years as a Chrome. Blending the religious fervour and moralising of The Scarlet Letter with the chilling dystopian repression and tight control of The Handmaid's Tale, Jordan has created a very human story, one about love and loyalty, belief and redemption, a coming-of-age story set in a rigorously constrained religious society that is only one small leap of the imagination away from present-day United States.

There are several kinds of Chromes, each a different colour designated to a certain kind of crime. Yellow is for minor misdemeanours. Blue is for child molesters. Red is for murder, and so the state of Texas - and most others - have decreed abortion to be. For refusing to name the father of her unborn child and the abortionist, Hannah received the maximum sentence. After being injected with compound that causes the skin mutation (which must be renewed every four months to avoid "fragmentation" of the mind, a side-effect created to ensure renewal because the dye - or "melachroming" - fades), every part of Hannah's being is controlled by the state. The first thirty days is spent in the Chrome ward, in a bare white room where there is no privacy and cameras record her every movement for the reality TV show that is the Chrome ward. Female Chromes, being rarer, tend to be more popular viewing material. Ninety percent of Chromes go mad during their time in the ward; Hannah comes close, no matter that she was determined to get through it.

Once released, only her father will speak to her. Her mother has all but disowned her, or so Hannah believes, and her older sister Becca married a man with a small mind, strong judgements and violent tendencies who keeps Becca completely under his thumb. With the help of Reverend Aidan Dale, her former pastor at the Plano Church of the Ignited Word, now the secretary of faith for the president and something of a celebrity, a bed for Hannah has been found at a halfway house for Chrome women called the Straight Path Center, run by the reverend of another strict religious group - though it's soon clear that it's his wife, Mrs Henley, who manages everything. With rules dictating every moment of their day and everything they can and can't do, the centre focuses on rehabilitating the women, but as the days go by Hannah is quick to realise that this place is determined to crush her spirit utterly, and in the cruelest way possible.

With her lover possibly moving on with his life, her family refusing to take her in, and nowhere to go, it seems like Hannah has no choice but to obey Mrs Henley and endure her manipulations. The world beyond the walls of the centre are a vulnerable place for a female Chrome, and Hannah has led an incredibly sheltered life, schooled in her faith and little else. Her one skill is sewing, and in secret she made elaborate dresses for herself, a creative outlet. And she believes in her sin, her guilt, her transgression against God, even while she questions everything else. But to survive in this new world that she's been thrust into as a Chrome, Hannah must question everything she ever believed, and come to some new understanding about her faith, and herself.

This book had me riveted, and immediately became a new favourite of mine. All the disparate parts of the plot, the writing style and the context, came together so seamlessly. It is a novel of extremes and Puritanical drama nested in a high-stakes adventure story, but it also had its subtle, quiet moments. It's that balance that Jordan achieved that really won me over: a story about a woman losing her faith and then discovering a more liberated version would normally have had my toes curling in wariness and even disdain, but Hannah was so likeable, so utterly human in all her flaws and good points, her story so raw and honest, that instead I was caught up in her crisis.

Hannah changes subtly over the course of the novel. You see the woman she had the potential to be in the snippets of the past as she recollects incidents, scenes with her family, so that the repressed Hannah, and the potential of Hannah, and the new Hannah, merge together without you hardly realising. With virtually no survival skills, little education and an upbringing rich in dogma and moral code, I wasn't sure what would happen to Hannah, whether she'd survive or whether even worse things would happen to her, once "outside". It made for a tense read, at times.

Once again, she marveled at her certainty. Had becoming a Red given her an extra sense, a knowledge of the hidden desires and evil in other hearts? She shook her head as a more likely, less romantic explanation occurred to her: becoming a Red had forced her, for the first time in her life, to really pay attention. [pp.185-6]

Hannah felt very real to me. She was a curious sort, whose curiosity was always repulsed, smothered. She was creative, and needed an outlet. While I kept feeling suspicious of Aidan Dale, her lover, for pretty much the entire book - is it because he was a preacher, that I felt instinctively suspicious, or because he was so popular, and such a charmer? - I could at least understand and sympathise with her feelings. I just wished that she hadn't led such an awfully sheltered life, that she had no room to explore and discover things naturally, and so understand her feelings, her body, her options. And certainly, now that I've had a child of my own, it was much more horrible reading of her lonely decision to abort than it would have been had I read this a few years ago. I still can't judge her for that.

As Hannah loses her faith, her naivety, the world around her becomes harsher, crueler, full of jagged edges on which she catches herself continually. It is not that the world changes, but that the bubble that kept her safe and in ignorance has gone. The contrast is striking - not over-the-top, not even all that obvious (after all, Hannah's dystopian real world isn't that different from what we're familiar with), but watching Hannah learn to navigate her way through a crueler reality than what she'd ever known before, brings with it a mixture of pride in her, and sadness that it's happening to her at all. Being thrust out into the real world, away from her sheltered family life, enables her to meet new people, people who think differently, independently. They've come up with their own ideas, after thinking things through - something Hannah was never allowed to do. Her friend Kayla, a fellow Red from the Straight Path Center, is just one of the first to make her think:

"Nah, I'm not religious. I mean, not like they taught us in church, anyway. I figure if there is a God, She's good and surged right now about the state of things down here."

That's blasphemy, Hannah thought, with a flare of outrage that was followed, a beat later, by wonder at the vehemence of her reaction. Why, when she no longer believed, would she respond like that? It had been pure reflex, she realized. She had no more control over it than she would over her salivary glands in the presence of freshly baked bread. Was that all her religious beliefs had ever been then, a set of precepts so deeply inculcated in her that they became automatic, even instinctive? Hear the word God, think He. See the misery of humankind, blame Eve. Obey your parents, be a good girl, vote Trinity Party, never sit with your legs apart. Don't question, just do as you're told. [p.186]

I'm sure this book would be hugely confrontational to readers who are staunchly anti-abortion, or deeply religious. While Hannah learns to have renewed faith in God, on her own terms, and never stops thinking of her abortion as a deed that murdered an unborn baby, even after hearing other perspectives on it, this is a story about questioning things, questioning other people's so-called moral right to make decisions about your body, your life. A story about questioning what people do in the name of God, and God itself - as a concept, an entity, a philosophy. It's a story about growing up, making decisions and mistakes, that you can be a good person without being brow-beaten or guilt-tripped into it.

[Stanton] carried the conversation, entertaining them with stories of Columbus and its distinguished inhabitants, who'd once included Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty. All Hannah knew about them was that they were both long-dead writers, but they were evidently favorites of Kayla's, because her face lit up, and she plunged into an animated discussion about them with Stanton. Listening to their exchange, Hannah was suffused with bitterness about her own ignorance. If she hadn't had to sneak books into the house and read them in hasty, furtive snatches, if she'd gone to a normal high school and then on to college as Kayla had, she too would have been able to assert that Miss Welty could write circles around Faulkner and have an opinion as to whether Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie was Williams's masterpiece. She'd always believed that her parents had done right by her, but now, sitting mute at Stanton's table, she found herself seething over their choices. Why had they kept her life so small? Why had they never asked her what she wanted? At every possible turn, she saw, they'd chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent. And the fact that they wouldn't see it that way, that they sincerely believed they'd acted in her best interest, didn't make it any less true, or them any less culpable. [pp.252-3]

This is hardly the first book to so articulately point out the hypocrisy of religion, or how strict rules like what Hannah grew up with, stifle the spirit as well as the growth of the individual (which is the point, I'm sure). But it breathes fresh air on an old topic, and this futuristic, dystopian society is the perfect vehicle for Hannah's journey through self-discovery. She literally wakes up. She always had it in her - she was the daughter who asked pesky questions, not Becca, and who read books her parents wouldn't approve of and allowed herself a creative outlet through the dresses. Becoming a Red was a gigantic, cruel wake-up call, but when you're deeply entrenched in a strict religion like this, and you do genuinely love and respect your parents, nothing short of a drastic change in circumstances will do it.

Because I'm not religious, not even close, and I'm pro-choice, I found the issues tackled in When She Woke invigorating. It doesn't shy away from hard questions or guilty consciences, and it always felt very real. I could easily imagine this wasn't a futuristic setting at all, because I can easily see the United States adopting these laws, and melachroming, if they had the technology.

There is a lot going on here, some of it obvious, some of it not. I've barely even discussed the setting, but I find myself rambling and need to stopper it. The dystopian world was fascinating and solidly constructed, serving as context and propulsion for Hannah's crisis of faith and journey of self-discovery. To be honest, I doubt I would have enjoyed this so much if it hadn't had the science fiction and dystopian elements to it, though Jordan's writing is very enjoyable. Highly recommended, especially for those of us yearning for a good dystopian, speculative fiction read who've been relying on YA for it and coming away deeply unsatisfied.
Profile Image for Lyndz.
108 reviews346 followers
July 27, 2011
First off, I do not just go around tossing out 5 stars all willy nilly. This is something I reserve only for my very favorite books. I predict that this book is going to be a hit with book clubs across the nation. It is an excellent read, it is provocative, enthralling, and thought provoking. This subject matter sticks with you. It forces you to take a closer look at your beliefs and see things from a different point of view. I highly recommend checking it out when it is released. Hillary Jordan is an expert at crafting a well told story. I can’t wait to check out Mudbound.

“Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family, but after her arrest, she awakens to a nightmare: she is lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes—criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime—is a new and sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, according to the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she’s shared a fierce and forbidden love.
When She Woke is a fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future—where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed and released back into the population to survive as best they can. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.”

I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
845 reviews806 followers
September 21, 2013
Hannah Payne is twenty-six years old and Red, with a capital R, her badge of shame. Her skin has been “melachromed” by the State for her crime of abortion, and for not naming the abortionist and not identifying the father, the celebrated pastor and TV (“vid”) evangelist, Aidan Dale, who is now the nation's "Secretary of Faith." Her sentence is thirty days confinement, and then sixteen years in the community as a Red, where she will be constantly ostracized and persecuted.

Other criminals of the same or different color (depending on the crime) are wandering through the prison of life, beyond the walls of crowded cells (this is the State’s answer for overcrowding), and many don’t survive--the Blue child molesters have especially low survival rates. Hannah is deeply in love with the married Aiden, and refuses to upbraid him or the doctor who was kind and tender to her. She is also a product of her religious upbringing, and when she wakes up Red, she believes that she deserves this punishment.

Many dystopian novels are noir and bleak—you can just hear Mahler’s symphonies in your imagination—the lost world of childhood, the yearning of fulfillment, life’s despair and discord. Therefore, Jordan’s more insistent, high-strung tone in reimagining a liberal interpretation of THE SCARLET LETTER, Hawthorne’s gothic melodrama, was unexpected. Her exuberance is like a lit match that never goes out. It has a pumping action, much like Dennis Lehane’s in his Kenzie and Gennaro series.

It also conforms to the margins of conventional genre more than the open-endedness of literature; Hannah is portrayed as a solid, misunderstood hero, and the demarcation of villain/hero-martyr is obvious and continuous with the secondary characters as well, except for a surprising and complex French radical named Simone, the most intriguing character in this tale. Much of the time, Hannah is on the lam with her newfound Red friend, Kayla, and heartily braves and overcomes dangerous hurdles at a page-turning glee.

In this near-future world, Roe v Wade has been overturned, and most of the fifty states have outlawed abortion. The government métier is fundamental New Testament, and is ruthless and unforgiving in its Kingdom-minded law. From reading this book, it appears that abortion is the primary preoccupation of the militant State, and that Aidan Dale is the only celebrity on the vid. Much of the novel takes place in the North Dallas area, where Jordan partly grew up. She knows the ingrained and forceful pieties of the area (the actual geographical area of Roe v Wade), and seems to draw on them. She started this book even before MUDBOUND, and it is left to wonder if she was shaking loose some demons from the Texas Red Oaks.

This is a commercial novel, unlike MUDBOUND, with a knowing arc and slender, reductive characters. She has a gift for thrumming action, even if it tends toward didacticism and a tidy outcome. This isn’t a novel that provokes thinking, as Jordan does much of the thinking for the reader, but it does provide action and visceral thrills and some poetic lyricism amidst the many indictments against religious zealots.

There is an exquisitely transcendent scene about two-thirds through, where a quietness and stillness pervades for a few pages, and Hannah reaches a key turning point in her life, and expresses it in a way that I hope others won’t fail to appreciate. It may seem lurid at face value, or even gratuitous, but it is anything but—rather, it is sublime in its implication. This was the high point of refinement in this not typically nuanced novel.

Twists and turns are relentless and exciting, although it is obvious, in this world of morally challenged monkeys running the State, who will finally prevail. Ambiguity is not a paramount trait in this heavy-handed story with potboiler themes. It is comfort food—like popcorn with a little too much butter, and addictive. The author will keep you fastened till the end, because Jordan’s thrall with her characters and exultance with her story is contagious and highly spirited.
Profile Image for Min.
367 reviews22 followers
October 3, 2011
It takes a special book to hook me into reading it in one sitting. Maybe it's the timeliness to the current political and faith debate, maybe it's my affinity for The Scarlet Letter, or maybe Hillary Jordan is just that damn good. Whatever the maybe, this book grabs you and drops you into a completely realized world that is both terrifying and familiar. If you enjoy books like The Handmaid's Tale, or even the more current and YA focused The Hunger Games Trilogy, this book is sure to grab your interest. In fact while the prose is sometimes thick yet beautiful, the protagonist, Hannah, is so sheltered that she almost reads as a YA character, despite her being 26 at the start of the novel.
Profile Image for reading is my hustle.
1,508 reviews298 followers
May 18, 2017
Cautionary tale about separation of church and state. As is KEEP THEM SEPARATE. Much like Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale this book is set in a future where a super STD has rendered most women sterile & Roe vs. Wade has been appealed. Except When She Woke is actually a retelling of the The Scarlet Letter. Instead of a big, red "A" Hannah Payne (ahem, Hester Pryne) is tinted red for having had an abortion after her famous + married boyfriend, Pastor Aiden Dale (ahem, Reverand Dimmesdale), gets her pregnant.

Truly horrific scenes are presented to the reader in this futuristic, dystopic, American society. I give props to Hillary Jordan for the concept of this novel. A classic story retold with a current twist/setting is one of my favorite reads.

And yet.

The last third of the book was not as strong as its beginning and was even a bit silly at times. If this reader had her way, Hillary Jordan would have taken as much time developing the characters and ideas she put forth in the beginning and resisted the cliches found at the end: not all Christians are brutes! sexuality can be fluid/complicated! there is freedom in independence!
Profile Image for Mike.
905 reviews
March 23, 2015
The premise hooked me, a modern day Scarlet Letter meets Margaret Atwood, and the beginning few chapters had me intrigued as to what type of world this woman lived in. I especially liked the idea of her receiving red skin for the 'murder' of her unborn child. I thought, "hmm, how will she fit into this dystopian society?" "What will this book say about the world in which we live?" Then the message is sent to the reader -- and it's sent pretty loudly.

Quickly, it became apparent to me that this wasn't going to be the brilliant writing style of Hawthorne or Atwood, who created worlds in which the reader was asked to contemplate the novel and think about his or her own world view as it relates to the event that unfolded. No, in fact, I never once had to ask myself, "I wonder what this symbolizes," or "what is she trying to say here?" When a character says, "You sound...different. Changed," you know that your hand is being held by the author and you won't have to worry about thinking for yourself (which is hilariously ironic), the path has been cleared for you.

In a nutshell, this author's message was blatant and, while her message is a simple one of acceptance and love, it was force fed and that insulted me as a reader.
Profile Image for Caroline.
225 reviews121 followers
April 10, 2021
This is a really good dystopian novel. Like a twisted sister of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s set in the near future where religion has taken over American politics and women lose their rights. It’s one of those books where the first half is 5 star, stellar stuff. Then the second half feels rushed and not as considered. Still a great read tho.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,131 followers
April 1, 2017
When she Woke is the second novel I have read by Hillary Jordan and I really enjoyed this story.

Every now and again I love to read dystopian literature that is well written and interesting.

When She Woke, tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed—their skin colour is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.

When She Woke is imaginative, suspenseful, and thought-provoking read. It is a story of one woman's struggle to survive against the odds, and a story of self-discovery. I loved how real this book felt and how engrossed in the story I became. The book is exactly the right length at 368 pages and Hillary Jordan wastes no time in creating an atmosphere. This is not going to be everyone's cup of tea but I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading dystopian literature and I think it would make a good book club read as there is plenty of discussion and while it may take some readers out of their comfort zone it is certainly a thought provoking book.
Profile Image for Wigs.
80 reviews1,234 followers
January 4, 2015
I feel like I was tricked into reading a book that was really religious... as I got to the end and I started getting preached at I was like oh...

I don't really appreciate a modern book telling me that life is an empty void without God. Whether or not she's echoing Nathanial Hawthorne I'm not sure (it's been about a decade since I read the Scarlet Letter), but I was pretty sure this was all the author's opinions too.


Also You set me up for disappointment. The end.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 11 books844 followers
August 1, 2012
Where I got the book: purchased on Kindle. A book club read.

This is a modern reworking of The Scarlet Letter, which is a book I started but didn't finish. I think I need to get an audiobook version, as Hawthorne is one of those writers I find much more acceptable in narration (Thackeray is another). But I digress.

This dystopian is set in a future Texas where the religious right have absolute control, women are forced to be good little wifies and abortion = murder in the legal arena. Hannah, up till that point a good Christian girl, terminates her pregnancy to shield her high-profile lover from exposure, and gets caught. Her sentence is to be melachromed; punishment in this society is to turn your skin a bright color to make your shame visible to all, at which point you're an easy target for every nasty-minded person in the vicinity (i.e. most of them). Hannah wakes up fire-engine red, and passes out of respectable society into a halfway house which is probably one of the more evil settings I've ever seen imagined. The rest of the novel is about how Hannah fights her way into asserting her right to make her own choices.

As you would imagine from my short summary, the political overtones are huge and I'm sure this book club (to which I am new) will spend much time arguing the whethers and should-haves. It's that sort of book. What I liked most about it was Hannah's increasing consciousness of herself as an independent entity; she is saturated with conservative Christian values yet manages to negotiate the spiritual consequences of her actions and struggle for some kind of redemption without an unrealistic "omg I just totally woke up to the wrongness of things and became a new woman" epiphany. This means that some of her choices are going to tick off the reader But she ends up coming across as real, and that made me happy.

The future setting is flawlessly imagined and convincingly chilling in an IT COULD HAPPEN kind of way. Secondary characters are plausibly well-rounded and the narrative is clear; I found myself wanting to read just a little bit more and then just a little bit more after that. My major issue is that I found the ending a little too glib; I could think of several ways I'd want the story to end with more bite. If there had been more tragedy in the end, I think I would have added an extra star, because I like my dystopians dark, dark, dark to make my real world seem just a little bit sweeter.
Profile Image for Hamster.
Author 1 book41 followers
October 19, 2012
Someone told me that my (second unpublished) novel reminded me of this one, so I thought I'd give it a try. The premise caught my attention and the writing was smooth and believable. The problem I had with it was that it felt like a political propaganda pamphlet. I wanted to enjoy the story but I kept getting hit over the head with Jordan's pro-choice agenda. She presents all religious figures as wildly fanatic or absurdly hypocritical, while she turns the back-alley abortionist into some kind of Mother Theresa-type hero.
It irked me that she pointed out Salt Lake City as the starting point for the self-righteous fervor that ended in banning abortions. Not a subtle way to paint Mormons as conservative zealots.
But I was willing to overlook that. I had to admit that as a whole Mormons (along with most other Christian religions) don't condone convenience abortions. (They feel differently about instances of rape, incest, or perils to the mother's health.) I forgave Jordan for singling out the Mormons because I thought it might be nice to see the other side of the argument. Even if I still believed in the sanctity of life, that didn't mean I couldn't understand where the pro-choicers were coming from, right?
Well, I never got the chance to find out.
Jordan offended me so completely and irrevocably with her next stunt:
In casual backstory, she mentions that a shooter went on a rampage, killing several people after asking them questions about the Book of Mormon. If they got the question wrong, he shot them.
After reading this (listening to it in my car) I felt physically sick.
Not because it presented a horrible scene, but because this was the second time Jordan had singled out the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and presented them as a cultish, unfeeling group of hypocrites.
Ms. Jordan, you are perfectly entitled to hate the LDS church, or any other religion for that matter. But when you write a book to push your warped views and single out a minority group for ridicule it only reveals you as a bigot.
If you ever write a book meant to be enjoyed by all audiences and not just those with the same narrow viewpoint as yourself, please let me know. Maybe I'll give it a try.
And maybe you should give The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ a try. I think you'll be surprised by the lack of psychotic, self-righteous murderers.
Profile Image for Jenny Watson.
32 reviews
March 22, 2013
This book is lazy. The most prominent blurb on the back of the book offers this insight "Hillary Jordan channels Nathaniel Hawthorne by way of Margaret Atwood […]." Jordan manages to directly lift the major plot points of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid's Tale without doing any intellectual heavy lifting. Reflection on the issues raised is mostly replaced with yet another attempted rape. I'm surprised this isn't shelved in young adult based on the reading level.

Melachroming had great potential, but the main character can't seem to get out much more than a slow understanding that racism still exists and people are mean to criminals. Jordan seems to try as hard as possible to let Christianity off the hook for its oppression of women, homosexuals, and anyone who walks "off the path." She takes the bad apple approach rather than examine how both the church and the government are oppressive by design.

This could have been a really good book, but it just doesn't make it.
Profile Image for Katherine.
778 reviews355 followers
August 5, 2018
”When she woke, she was red.”

Forget The Handmaid’s Tale and even Stephen King’s books, this was one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

This should in of itself be hilarious, because I don’t usually get scared by dystopian books. So why should this be any different? Because the world the author created was so freakishly realistic in where America is headed in terms of politics, especially with the arrival of the new president (that shall not be named). It’s basically what would happen if the far right of the Republican party completely overthrew the government (which is basically happening as we speak). I don’t know if the author realized this or not when she was writing this book, but I’m beginning to think she saw it coming before any of us did.

In this masterful retelling of The Scarlet Letter, America is divided. The church and state are no longer separate. Roe vs. Wade has been overturned, and America is being governed under something of a religious dictatorship. Think of it like this; if the Duggars suddenly came to run America and imposed their conservatively Christian beliefs on the entire country. Furthermore, criminals are now being chromed with a dye that turns their skin a certain color depending on the crime they committed. Purple equals rape, blue equals child molestation, green equals armed robbery, etc. The three least offending colors are yellow, orange, and red. This is the world that our main character Hannah lives in. Hannah has been raised to serve God and country (in that order), and be the good, obedient daughter she was always meant to be.
”That Hannah had been a good girl and a good Christian, whose life had revolved around the twin nuclei of her family and the church; who lived with her parents, worked as a seamstress at a local bridal salon, gone to services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and Bible classes twice a week, volunteered at the thrift shop and campaigned for Trinity party candidates. Who was obedient to her parent’s wishes- in almost everything.”
But try as she might, she never seems to be able to conform to her parent’s wishes, always questioning the church’s teachings and why she is held to believe what she has been taught, with it’s suppression of women and religious fanaticism.
”Becca was a sunny, obedient child who swam through adolescence and into womanhood with an ease Hannah envied. Becca never struggled to follow God’s plan or had any doubts about what it was, never yearned for something indefinably more. Hannah tried to be like her sister, but the more she suppressed her true nature, the stronger it burst forth when her resolve weakened, as it inevitably did.”
Then she really finds herself in a pickle when she has an affair with, becomes pregnant, and aborts the baby of her lover, who happens to be Aidan Dale, one of the most important religious figures in the nation. She gets caught and is chromed red, which screams to the world of the crime she committed. But Hannah is not like other women in her predicament. Her fierce will to survive outweighs all the challenges that are thrown at her in an effort to escape the religious suppression and extreme prejudices that are her new daily life.

As I said before, the world the author created was frightening because it was so realistic. Even though I live in Central California, the area where I live in is jokingly known as the “Texas of California” because most of the people are conservatively Christian and Republican while the rest of California are liberal Democrats (ironic, considering that Texas is the main setting of this novel). The beliefs that Hannah’s family (and the world the author created, for that matter), are so aligned to the place where I live now it was spooky. I could see most people here supporting the punishments and abusive rehabilitation centers that the author has Hannah go into, such as gay conversion camps and abusive rehabilitation centers. Hannah’s family reminded me a lot of some families I know of myself, and Hannah, frankly, reminded me of me. Thankfully, I grew up in a liberal household, but I could see myself doing exactly what Hannah was doing throughout her childhood; always questioning. I liked Hannah’s pluck and marveled at her sheer stubbornness in refusing to name the Aidan as the father of her child, as well as the slow realization that her viewpoints that she’s held all her life are indeed deeply flawed.
Feminists. The word made Hannah bristle with distaste. In her world, they were viewed as unnatural women who sought to overturn the order laid down by God, sabotage the family, emasculate men, and along with gays, atheists, abortionists, Satanists, pornographers, and secular humanists, pervert the American way of life. She’d never questioned much of what she’d been taught, and certainly not the precept that women were meant to submit to the loving guidance of men.”
I thought the whole romance between Hannah and Aidan was a bit on the romantic obsession side, but done pretty well. When both sides have been religiously suppressed for such a long period of time, the unrequited love is bound to be unbearable. And when you’re a public figure such as Aidan Dale, it’s torturous.
”Their attraction grew slowly, haltingly, unacknowledged but unmistakable. At times, it was so palpable she half expected it would materialize, sinuous and glistening, in the air between them.”
Aidan is one of those charismatic preachers that has just enough charm to not be considered a total sleazebag, but enough to be considered obsessed with himself. To tell you the truth, I had mixed feelings regarding his true feelings for Hannah. On the one hand, he did seem to love her deeply, but I think it was marred by his love for himself.His borderline obsession with being the best preacher, and the most powerful one at that, kind of tarnished his character for me, especially towards the end. But I liked how the author played out his conflicting feelings and his many flaws, ironically acknowledging the fact that most of these mega-preachers are really two-faced in the end.

I also really liked the friendship between Kayla and Hannah, who meet at the rehabilitation center once Hannah is discharged from prison. Kayla’s sass was refreshing from the sheer oppressive nature of the book, and I always loved reading her scenes. However, I felt that she kind of disappeared from memory towards the end, as if the author simply didn’t have enough time to write more about her because she was rushing towards the end. One minute she was there and then she was gone. It was disconcerting, especially for those of us who really connected with her, and I think she deserved a better sendoff then the one she got.

Despite all the wonderful things about this novel, there was one exception. I didn’t really like how the relationship between Simone and Hannah played out. Simone is a member of the Novemberist resistance group, which helps chromes escape to Canada. Simone is kind of prickly, but she gets the job done. I didn’t particularly like her character to begin with, but I was totally caught off-guard when

In the age of political turmoil that we’re now living in, and especially considering the events over the past few weeks, I would highly recommend reading this book. I never would’ve considered this a horror novel, but because of what happened here in America, this is the ultimate horror novel for those of us who tried so hard to prevent this from happening. But it’s also an eye-opening experience and one made all the more enjoyable due to plucky, determined characters and a message of hope that’s a constant undercurrent throughout the novel. While this book may be too politically charged or painful for some readers due to the content, I would still encourage those who are interested to read it. I think Hawthorne would be proud at the author’s attempt to retell his classic story, as she did a masterful job, albeit with some flaws.
Profile Image for Lisa Reads & Reviews.
441 reviews119 followers
July 15, 2011
This is an important book for the political and spiritual questions it effectively addresses. I was intrigued by the very first page and found it difficult to put the book down at night. The characters, plot and writing were all well done. There is logic in the premise, and the outcome is easily imagined as possible. Certainly the repression of thought is contemporary and troubling.

Although I had quibbles at the end where I found myself skimming travel log type descriptions which added nothing new or interesting to the story, I bumped my rating to a 5 because I continued to think about the story long after finishing it. However, this is a 4.5 roundup because many of the final pages seemed inserted only to delay my finding out how the tale would end. Also, if an author gives a character a gun, they had better use it. Hannah was rescued by a chrome near the end when I think the scene would have been more effective if she had protected herself.

The ending itself was in perfect harmony with the story, but I felt those two issues took away a bit of the luster for me. On a more minor note, I would have liked more description of Becca's fate, but life isn't always tidy.

All these are but quibbles with a powerful book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the current political and religious forces acting upon American society. The book is a perfect vehicle for book club discussions.
Profile Image for Sonja Arlow.
1,097 reviews7 followers
October 7, 2015
I read a lot of dystopian, so I was quite excited to start on a book by a new author in one of my favourite genres.

This alternative Texas is a patriarchal Big Brotherish society where church and state is indistinguishable. Abortion, homosexuality, the theory of evolution, even colourful clothes are forbidden by the church and executed by the law. But for all their pious preaching, forgiveness and compassion are two things completely out of reach for these Christian fundamentalists.

Hanna is a 26 year old who, against her own better judgment, has an affair with a married man. Not just any married man but with her Pastor. When she falls pregnant Hanna only sees one way out – an abortion – which is murder in this new world. All blame and punishment for this situation is laid solely in front of Hanna as she refuses to give up the name of her lover.

I am deliberately not elaborating on the chroming of convicts as this really formed a very small part in the story. What a pity.

What the book really focuses on is religion, and lots of it. The first 1/3 of the book handled Hanna’s faith in a way that showed how it was part of her life, but I felt that the rest of the book had too much focus on religion. I have heard so many arguments for and against organized religion that I found nothing unique in this telling and as a result it was a tedious task to finish.

As I read my fair share of dystopian novels where 16 year olds tend to sound very mature, I found Hanna’s voice quite immature and naïve for a 26 year old. Perhaps its because she was brought up in a very protective environment or perhaps because the story contains adult content and the author had to make her older to justify the content.

Man, grow a spine! I struggled to have any understanding of Hanna’s infatuation with him.

She was the only character I liked, up to a point.

This seems to have gone down well with people who normally do not read dystopian novels (The Scarlet Letter nostalgia) but for me it was a disappointment.

If you are looking for good dystopian stories that relates to some of the issues in this book I rather recommend:

1) Unwind (addresses moral issues such as abortion much better)
2) Half Way Home (addresses issues around sexuality better)
Profile Image for Mandy.
242 reviews17 followers
March 30, 2012
The protagonist awakes dyed red for her crime...abortion. In this dystopian tale there is no separation of church and state, and even less separation between the author's personal political views and her story. This book is engaging, initially (until the last 1/3) well written, and explores some controversial subjects. It is not for the sensitive, faint of heart, or easily offended. Or even not easily offended, there were many parts i had to skip/skim. To me, it felt like 2 separate novels, with the first one being just disturbing enough to be thought provoking and the second veering into the ridiculous and poorly concealed propaganda. I can't really recommend this book because I didn't like the way that religion and abortion are portrayed. There are very few "gray" people in this novel, everyone seems to be on one side of the spectrum or the other. Those who have a firm faith and strong moral convictions (specifically evangelicals, mormons, and catholics) are frequently portrayed in an unflattering way. The author placed every religious (and conservative) person on the extreme zealous end of the spectrum, which showed little understanding or respect, in my opinion. Then there is the very obvious and overwhelming pro choice tone of the book. I took it for what it was, an opinion different from my own. It was interesting to see another perspective, but this may bother some readers.

To the authors credit, she did me take a long hard look at the way we as a society treat one another, especially people who have committed crimes and force me to think deeply about my own convictions. The book was also a page turner, I finished it in one sitting. Her dystopian world was a little too familiar and felt almost too real. While I do not in any way agree with her opinions or obvious agenda, I did like the warnings of mixing church and state...I just think that warning goes both ways.

The last third of the novel was ridiculous and included elements I had to skip over. Very offensive and not true at all to the novel's protagonist.

In conclusion, an interesting novel that I will never read again. Made me think. Made me want to write a long review. Made me want to warn my friends that this is one you should approach with extreme caution if at all.
Profile Image for Ellis.
1,217 reviews137 followers
October 20, 2016
A nice, slightly young adult-ish novel. Are adult writers becoming more juvenile or young adult writers becoming more sophisticated? I guess it doesn't matter either way; this book is still interesting despite its slight superficiality. The concept of people being turned different colors based on the crimes they're convicted of is fascinating, but strangely it isn't as much of a big deal as you'd expect. While I appreciate that Jordan doesn't ram her heroine's redness down your throat, I would've liked it to be a little more prominent than it was. I wish that Hannah's experience of living in society had been ultimately what the book was about, rather than the forced run from the law & flight to Canada. I was more interested in the various vigilante groups, the cultish churches, the bias that people can't seem to help but have against criminals that are living in their midst, but they get left behind along with Hannah's family in the first half of the book. This book does an excellent job of illustrating a point that I personally find self-evident - you may criminalize abortion, you may repeal Roe v Wade, you may make the act akin to second degree murder in a court of law, yet none of these things are going to stop women from having them.
Profile Image for Sheri.
390 reviews60 followers
July 25, 2013
I read The Scarlet Letter many, many years ago. I was going into When She Woke thinking it was a re-telling of The Scarlet Letter, but although the underlying premise was the same, ultimately this was a completely different story from a completely different time. I liked the setting of the world created in this book and how the author did not spend chapter upon chapter describing it. She unveiled her world to us through the telling of the story, which was an interesting way to see it.

As for the characters, I had a hard time connecting with Hannah. I did like her more as the story went on, but I never really fell in love with her. Maybe it was the emotional distance that she kept from everyone that kept me at a distance as well. However, I did like how she questioned everything and was always looking for answers. I absolutely hated Aiden, but I think we were supposed to. He was hypocritical, self-centered, selfish…need I go on? However, it was pointed out to me that a good book brings out emotions. Hate is a very strong emotion. From the beginning Aiden orchestrated and controlled their whole relationship...He took advantage of Hannah's trust and innocence and abused his power over her.

Ultimately, the book definitely did not go where I thought it would, and although I really enjoyed the book, I did not really like the ending. I can't really pinpoint it, but something felt like it was missing to me. I guess I just wanted something more to happen. I felt the whole last section was too rushed. I would have loved an extra chapter on the end to tell how everything played out. What happened to Aiden and Alyssa? What is Hannah going to do now? Though, I think any good book gets into your mind and leaves you with questions.
Profile Image for JoAnne Pulcino.
663 reviews60 followers
February 16, 2012
By Hillary Jordan
If THE HANDMAIDS TALE and THE SCARLET LETTER were to have a child it most certainly would be this wonderful book, WHEN SHE WOKE. This well written book captures you with the opening scene of a young woman lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown while being televised to millions of homes.

Hannah Payne’s life had been devoted to church and family all her life until she shared a fierce and forbidden love with a very public figure. When she became pregnant, she had an abortion. The future state of Texas has become a dystopian society where the lines between church and state have been eradicated. An abortion is a major crime and the mother is guilty of the sin of murder. The punishment for a murder verdict is that the guilty are forced to become a Chrome. A Chrome is a criminal whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the offense. Since the crime of murder carries the harshest punishment, the color that represents murder is RED. Hannah becomes a red chrome. There are also yellow and green Chromes who have committed lesser crimes. Chromes have cameras broadcasting their every move to millions of homes as a sinister form of entertainment.

When the Chromes have served their time, they are released back into society where they must learn how to survive any way they can in a hostile and alien world. When Hannah reenters that world, she must begin a journey of self discovery, and question the values she once treasured.

This is a marvelous read that fringes on the edge of science fiction, but always feels authentic and resonates with a realism that says things like this could happen.

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