The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaidThe Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, Vintage 1996. Copyright 1985

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the Handmaid’s Tale by now. I for one am looking forward to watching the Netflix adaptation now that I’ve finally read the novel. This is actually my second Atwood book- the first was Penolopiad which I NEEDED LIKE WATER IN A DESERT after studying The Odyssey in a male dominated classroom.

The Handmaid’s Tale sets place in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the U.S.A where our protagonist Offred serves a family as the role of a handmaid. Or more crudely as the role of a breeder. Women have been separated into different roles to serve this very patriarchal society with Wives at the top and Unwomen at the bottom. Offred can either submit or be hung on the wall as a traitor.

This is a very powerful book. I imagine it would have been shattering if I had not already read works like The Power recently. It’s hard to believe this was published in 1985 especially when you look at the U.S.A now.  Atwood is brilliant at describing the long slow suffocation of a person who remembers the freedom of a previous life. I also love that Atwood doesn’t paint the previous world (our present one) as a perfect one where women were completely free. The attitudes stay the same but the structure changed.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I also appreciated the flashbacks of Offred’s former marriage and how atypical yet intimate it was.

The lack of knowledge is at the heart of the book. Offred and so we the readers have no idea what is going on in the world outside of the tiny bubble of Offred and the Commander’s household except for brief glimpses. Everything even with the spurts of violence is muffled like the writing of a person in shock.

 

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My Top Five Reads of 2017

One of my new year’s resolutions is to review more of the books I read. I read some truly wonderful books in 2017 and had a very very hard time narrowing it down to five out of the 45 books I read this year. I won’t count the re-reads as books like The Blue Castle and Northern Lights have an unfair advantage.

Here are my top five books in the order I read them.

 

deathlessDeathless by Catherynne M Valente

Oh how do I describe the enchantment that is this book! Even by June I was worried I wouldn’t read anything even half as good. Every line is as dark and delicious as a bitter winter night and the story is rich with folklore and characters that have stayed with me all year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This is a beautiful dark dream of a book set in Iceland 1829. Agnes is charged with the brutal murder of her master and sent to await execution on a farm. Her story and the one of the family she is sent to live with is lyrical, moody and horrifying as the date of her impending death draws nearer. I was really impressed by the intensity and gorgeous prose writing of Kent and that this was her debut novel.

 

 

 

 

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book but what a masterpiece! I thought I had done Tudor history to death but Mantel brought a new light into it with her interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, a man I can never now think of in the same way again. The intricacy of her characterisation is really where she shines here and Cromwell as a merchant, a bully, lawyer and a politician is fascinating to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Another shocking debut made my list this year. I went into this book expecting greatthings (thanks to rave reviews on BookTube) and I was still amazed. The story went places I was not expecting and hurt me more than I thought it would. I empathised so deeply with the main character and though this book had dark themes I never lost hope while reading it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This book stole my heart. I wasn’t expecting it and it blew me away. Set in WW2, the book depicts the deep friendship between two women (one from Stockport!) as they get more and more involved in the war and then one gets captured in Nazi occupied France…

This books made me elated and moved me to tears. I loved the descriptions of Maggie roaming the Peak District (how could I not?) and the relationship between the two women is truly beautiful. I highly recommend Rose under Fire, the sequel, which also left me dazed and moved after reading. I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

 

These are the five that stood out but I read so many quality books this year including Jamaica Inn, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Faro’s Daughter and The Power. And of course, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada which might be one of the grimmest books I have ever read.

I will try and be more regular with my book review posts in 2018. Happy New Year!

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

31349579I’ve seen a few suggestions on Booktube that this is the book that should have won the Bailey’s Prize and I can certainly see why everyone was so impressed (I’m glad I don’t have to decide between this and The Power myself)

Yejide has been married for husband, Akin, for years but there is no child. Her relatives turn up one day with a strange woman- they’ve arranged for her husband to have a second wife. Against the political upheaval of 80s Nigeria, Yejide tries everything in her power to have a child with devastating consequences….

This book completely engulfed me and turned out to be completely different to what I had expected from the blurb and the title. It went somewhere I didn’t expect and I ended up reading this story well into the night, not just to see where the plot was going but also because Yejide’s life made me ache for her. I wanted badly for her to be alright.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretch to accommodate every level of indignity. So that I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Despite the slow horror after horror emerging like shadows in this story it is not bleak. It is full of magic and fairytales and dark humour; Yejide isn’t the type of heroine who just lies down and lets things happen to her, “Fumi don’t let me see your broomstick legs in this place ever again.”

Mean while the rising tension of political and social turbulence seeps into their daily lives. It was fascinating and gave a wider context to the story. I felt like we were leading up to a crash.

 

Love is the driving force in this book which is why you never lose hope that things will get better. I can’t believe this is a debut novel, it is not only incredibly moving but its pacing, characterisation and plot are masterfully written. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to be swept away.

 

 

Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

51tBL7+KbKL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_How do I review a book that has shaped the majority of my reading life? I first picked up this book around the age of 10 and His Dark Materials became an obsession with me for the the early part of my teenage years, neck and neck with Harry Potter. This series is exceptional, both as a children’s book and and adult work full of complexities and exciting ideas.

Lyra Bevacqua and her daemon live carefree and half wild amongst the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. One night she sneaks into the Retiring Room to spy on her Uncle Asriel, giving a talk to the scholars before his expedition to the North, and her life changes forever. Meanwhile children all over the country are going missing and Lyra heads on a quest North where witches fly on pine branches, bears rule in ice palaces and scientist are conducting horrifying experiments under the Aurora.

There are no words to describe how thrilling this book is, 18 years after I first picked it up it still excites me. Pullman has a gift for characterisation- these are characters that stay with you forever- the beautiful Mrs Coulter with the golden monkey, Lord Asriel, Lee Scoresby and of course, Lyra herself. I loved her as a child for the same reason I loved Mary from The Secret Garden, for being a sort of anti-heroine. She is a skilful liar and lies as often as drawing breath, she can be selfish, violent but she has a heart of pure gold and courage which is why she wins so many people over.

The story itself is both a gripping adventure story and subtle one of magic and ideas. One of my favourite moments is when Lyra is talking to a witches daemon (an outward expression of a human being’s soul) a snow goose.

He raised his wings and spread them wide before folding them again.

“There,” he said, “I have just brushed ten million other worlds and they knew nothing of it. We are as close as a heartbeat, but we can never touch or see or hear these other worlds except in the Northern Lights.”

I am re-reading this series in anticipation for La Belle Sauvage which comes out next week. It is a captivating series with so many layers that I find something different to enchant me every time I read it.

 

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

the_sun_also_risesI went into this book torn between scepticism and hoping to fall in love. I knew all about Hemingway, from popular culture, lists of the greatest writers and as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War. I had also read A Moveable Feast  back when I was a student and it was just the kind of sensory, cafe and liquor heavy prose I enjoyed then. The Sun Also Rises is the first of Hemingway’s novels I have sat down to read and while I didn’t have to force my way through it like another certain Jazz Age work, I wasn’t blown away either.

The book centres around a group of American expatriates after WW1, as they roam from the bars in Paris to the bullfighting rings of Spain, while dealing with their romantic entanglements with each other and disillusionment after the War. The star is Lady Brett Ashley and orbiting around her is the protagonist Jake Barnes. I had heard of these two before I even picked up the book as they are quite iconic.

Hemingway’s writing style is incredibly sparse and yet highly atmospheric. It is also heavy on the dialogue and often quite mundane dialogue at that. It should have been rambling and pointless and yet there is weight behind it. It’s like it all fits into the same dream. The mundane becomes relevant. I’ve seen other contemporary writers do this and found it tedious and pretentious and yet here it works.

“The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright and inclined to blur at the edges.”

Halfway through the book however the novelty had worn off for me. I enjoyed the writing but the characters weren’t interesting enough to me to keep me glued to a book without much of a plot. I didn’t really know much more about Brett or Jake at the end of the book then I did at the beginning despite having watched them drink their way across Europe. I also wasn’t impressed by the casual anti-Semitism thrown around by various characters and the greatest impression of my first reading of a Hemingway novel from this is; disappointment.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

71YzYD54WTLSwing Time. Zadie Smith. Copyright November 2016. Hamish Hamilton.

Two little girls dream about being dancers but only one has talent. The other is full of ideas on music, film and the people around her. Their friendship, often antagonistic, twists into something else entirely as they grow up and move in opposite directions. The unnamed narrator takes us from the housing estates in London to a village in West Africa and into the sphere of an international pop star.

White Teeth blew me away and the promise of a novel by the same author on dance really excited me so I went into this book ready to fall in love. This may have contributed to why I was so disappointed by Swing Time. Zadie Smith, again, has created memorable and distinct characters but I didn’t like any of them. I was also disappointed that dance itself didn’t actually feature much in the story, only the industry around it.

The narrative was like listening to someone’s life story and interesting career (to them) and holidays and childhood- nothing touched me. This seemed to mimic the protagonist’s lack of true passion to anything in her life, except for her childhood friend Tracy. I felt like I would have been more interested following any of the other characters stories who actually seemed to have some sort of purpose- her mother, Aimee or Tracy herself.

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

I’ve seen many people say that this is Zadie Smith’s best book yet. Swing Time has also made the Man Booker longlist for 2017. However, like with the stories of Alice Munro, I just didn’t connect with this book. I will, however, be reading another Zadie Smith because White Teeth is still one of the best books I have read and I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good place to start.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.”