The Handmaid’s Tale 6 of 25 #ReadwithRD

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I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, which makes it a good choice for my ‘book I read in high school’, arf.

Having watched the TV show last year and being both fascinated and a bit scared about the nearness of some of the experiences shown, I was a bit puzzled as I remembered very little of the characters in the book, as they are on the telly. I assumed that the production had changed a lot, added details, people etc from the book in order to make it more up to date, a bit closer to the bone. I read a couple of reviews where the assertion was, in fact, that the show was pretty close to the book, which told me pretty clearly that I should read it again!

handmaid's tale

This review will be talking about the book (besides that bit at the beginning). I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

Canadian born Margaret Atwood wrote the novel, which was published in 1985. It was a literary success from the outset, in that it won the 1985 Governor General’s Award,  1987 Arthur C Clarke Award and a runner up for the 1986 Booker Prize.  A quick look at Wikipedia shows a prolific array of over writing spanning a staggering seven decades and counting and covering everything from  short stories, anthology editing and graphic novels. I was lucky enough to see Atwood speak as part of her visiting writership at the UEA, 2013-14.  In the flesh she is as in her writing – insightful, clear and terrifying, at times.

For those of you who haven’t read this, or seen any of the adaptations, including the 1990 Natasha Redgrave starring film where Pinter wrote the script, a brief summary of the plot follows.

It’s the not too distant future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the state of Gilead. Her role is to be a surrogate in a high ranking family, although this surrogacy arrangement is not a consensual one, seemingly from all sides. In a world where Handmaids where red and the wives wear blue, the chosen sides may not be as clear cut as they may seem. Offred had a name of her own once, but we are never told it. She lives her days in the house, summoned on a monthly basis to the bedroom, where Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, acts as a horrifying lap to cushion Offred while her husband, attempts to impregnate Offred in an act of rape which is dressed up in Biblical garments, in more ways than one.

Fertility rates have gone down and decreased to the point where babies are few and far between. A passage in the Bible seems to refer to the a handmaid of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who is given to Jacob when Rachel fails to conceive.

Everything in the book is fluid and unreliable, which makes it fascinating to read. Offred’s whole account is completely unsubstantiated. The book is told from her point of view, of course, but if we are to believe her she has no access to pens, paper or any other recording equipment. How then, can she have committed her experiences to be remembered? She herself says on a number of occasions that her stories are reconstructions. In the most difficult scenarios – where she goes to the Commander’s room alone for the first time, on recounting her last trip with her husband, she tells it from a couple of different angles and with the details changed. For me, this is both intriguing and frustrating. What really happened?

 

Time is fluid too. With no way to count the days, she has no passage of time to track her life beyond the Ceremony, by the phases of the moon. This is echoed in the names of the chapters – nearly half of them are simply called ‘Night’, while the others are equally shortly named, including ‘Nap’, ‘Household’ and ‘Salvaging’. Stark, to the point. Long term, I struggled to understand where she was on her own timeline, but the wider one too. She was in the first wave of handmaids, according to the epilogue. If we can believe her account, this house was her second posting with two years at each one, so perhaps 3 years as a handmaid? The training might have been a year or two before that, of course.

Fundamentally, it’s human nature to try to pattern spot, to build a framework around something to try to comprehend it, but actually, I don’t think it matters.  We need to choose to take her word for it, or not.

This wasn’t an easy read, and it took a lot longer for me to finish than a book that size normally would. I think it’s because it’s a lot denser than it looks, and Offred’s voice is so strong that it does get to be oppressive  – she’s the woman in the supermarket who always has a sad tale to tell. It’s an important one though  – a caution at what happens when you let the bastards grind you down. Or maybe, when you let them in in the first place.

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The Book of Dust 5 of 25 #ReadwithRD

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“The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”, by Philip Pullman, gave me my fifth book in the Readers Digest reading challenge this year – the ‘book with animal on the cover’. (See that hyena, hanging on the B and the O?) It’s also the book which gave me arm ache as I’m not used to reading hardbacks, and it’s got a lot of pages!

Book of Dust

I was pretty excited to read it as I love the original trilogy, His Dark Materials. As a Philosophy student, the central questions in the books were fascinating when I read them first, 15 years ago – who are we, do we have free will? What happens to us when we die? These questions are still interesting, and are still being asked in the prequel, volume 1.

 

This read a bit like Rogue One in the Star Wars universe – a prequel to everything that came before it and a piece of the jigsaw puzzle falling into place. The story follows 11 year old Malcolm Polstead – the son of the couple who run the local pub on the outskirts of Oxford. He’s got a bit more about him than the ordinary pub landlord’s kid, and quite soon he’s caught up in shadowy conversations and mysterious disappearances.

 

It was really lovely to be back in the Dust universe – I loved familiarising myself with daemons and Oxford, spotting soon to be well loved and worn characters in the next books. It was quite a hard read and it took me a little while to get into it, which may have been because I’m so connected with Lyra and Will, that new characters which are the same but not quite took a bit of getting used to.

 

I was also quite shocked at some of the language – there was definitely some swearing and some of the discussions were adult themed. It belonged in the story and perhaps these books are aimed at the people who grew up with the first trilogy and who are now adults themselves. After all, Will and Lyra grow up in those books so really, it’s nothing new. I would perhaps not recommend it for bedtime reading with your children though, especially as it involves quite sinister characters as well as a fight for survival with graphic depictions.

 

I definitely enjoyed it and I am already looking forward to book 2 “The Secret Commonwealth”, reportedly to centre on 20 year old Lyra and take place after the end of The Amber Spyglass.

 

36 Questions 4 of 25 #ReadwithRD

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There is a set of questions that if two strangers ask each other each question, they will fall in  love. Apparently. This is my ‘book with a number in the title’.

36 questions

This book is based on that set of questions: “36 questions that changed my mind about you”, by Vicki Grant. The set up is that it is a college experiment – a call for strangers to ask each other the questions in exchange for $40 each. Betty & Bobby (fake names) meet and instantly dislike each other. Told from Betty/Hildy’s point of view, Bobby/Paul is not her type at all. Tough, muscly, short on words and even less concerned about proper grammar. The session does not go well and she ends up storming out after throwing her fish at him.

 

She finds, though, that she can’t stop thinking about him. How they would have answered the rest of the questions. What else he would have drawn. She wishes she knew his real name, and then she gets a message on facebook from ‘Bob’, who has also been thinking of her. And the $40.

 

The story is a time honoured classic of boy meets girl/girl hates boy (and vice versa) etc. I found that their story was more nuanced and more complicated than I expected, and the background of Hildy’s home life demonstrated that they are more alike than they first thought.

 

I enjoyed the description of the weather – I know that sounds strange but there’s a snowstorm at one point and it was tangible. I could almost feel the chill from the outside coming in.

 

A great read and I read it in one sitting (perhaps because I was on a plane!) but definitely one I’d recommend to someone looking for an unchallenging romantic story with a little bit of bite.  Thanks to Netgalley and Hot Key Books for the advance digital copy!

 

Oh, and those questions? They’re here, if you want to try them out….

Turtles, everywhere Book 3 of 25 #ReadwithRD

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“Turtles all the way down” by John Green, is my 3rd Readers Digest book and the one that ticks off the ‘book on your shelf you haven’t read yet’. Although technically, technically it’s on a virtual shelf as I only have it on kindle. That definitely counts.

turtles book cover

The basic plot is that Aza is a teenaged girl who has issues with anxiety – far more so than the normal angst puberty brings. She lives with her Mum, a teacher at her school (awkward!) and has couple of close friends – Daisy and Mychal. On top of the struggle with her own thoughts, Aza discovers that local billionaire Russell Pickett has gone missing – the father of a boy she once met at camp, and had a connection with.

 

Aza is not a reliable narrator, but she is an interesting one. The description of her thought process around germs and hygiene and the number of microbes people have living on their skin, is a vivid one. It’s easy to see how all consuming that spiral can be, especially with such a good description.

 

The story, interwoven as a study in the complex and transitory relationships with people dead and alive, against a backdrop of investigative whodunit, is also an interesting one. Aza is a vivid character because she has ‘real’ reactions – she is self aware and she understands how odd, how unusual her behaviour is, and yet she cannot stop herself. That is one of the difficult things in the novel, which is that she cannot complete the actions which would help her manage her anxiety. One of these is to take her medication, which she refuses to do as she is anxious about losing her ‘self’ – what if the medication removes her personality? What if her brain and her aversion to germs is intrinsically linked to her identity, and without it, she loses the uniqueness of her?

chewy and rey

The other characters around her are well drawn too – her Mum, who is doing all she can to help but aware that Aza is in the middle stage of child to adult, and her best friend, Daisy, who writes Chewbacca and Rey fan-fiction. Daisy’s inclusion of an Aza-like character, writ large and exaggerated, feels mean through Aza’s eyes, but also, her point is well made. Aza is selfish, by nature of her condition, she only thinks of herself and the impact the world has on her  – not vice versa.

 

I enjoyed reading this and I can see how this, along with Fault in our Stars, would have been just what I wanted to read in my teens. I think now, twenty years later, I can stand from far off and acknowledge that it’s well written – I just can’t engage with the characters emotionally.

2018’s Reading Challenge!

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Thanks to my amazing sister, who spotted this on Instagram and suggested we try it.  We live 10,000 miles apart so it’s a pretty good way of keeping in touch, I think.

25 books over the year. 2 a month (ish) or 25 in December – your decision!

The IG post has some more details and the hashtag #ReadwithRD if you want to join in!

I’ll be posting reviews with numbers in the title to keep track.

 

Happy Reading!

Categories below:

A book

by your favourite author
A book with an animal on the cover
A book you read in high school
A book of poems
A book you got for free
A book set during WWII
A book published before you were born
A book you found in a used bookstore
A book recommended by a reading buddy
A book reviewed in a magazine
A book that is a memoir
A book that is a YA novel released in 2018
A book based on a fairytale
A book that is an award winning book
A book that is blue
A book with a city in the title
A book on your shelf you haven’t read yet
A book based on your spiritual beliefs
A book that is a graphic novel
A book written by a journalist
A book that takes place where you live
A book that is challenging for you
A book with a number in the title
A book that is non-fiction
A book of your choice

Fine, thanks 2 of 25 #ReadwithRD

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*Please note, while I will try not to put spoilers in here, due to the nature of the story set up and the multiple twists, there might be references to story points which may become more relevant later on in the novel. I’ll try to point these out beforehand too!*

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  She has a nice job, a nice flat and a nice routine in Glasgow.  Except she isn’t fine, of course. Early on and just after we meet Eleanor, she reveals that her routine includes buying multiple bottles of vodka on a Friday evening and drinking them all over the weekend. This is at odds with her external demeanour -she wears sensible shoes and a jerkin, she prides herself on having a bus pass and certainly never partakes in any idle gossip chit chat.

This is precisely what is fascinating about the character. She is at once many layered and entirely believable. Her self perception is absolutely at zero – she doesn’t understand why people don’t like being told that they’re wrong, or that she can’t stand the vacuous discussion on the Christmas party. In a nutshell, she’s not very nice. One day her computer breaks and she calls the helpdesk, and someone comes to fix it. This brief encounter leads to a series of events where we get to see the real Eleanor, peeled away like all the layers of an onion.

We are introduced to her social worker, her mother, the man who owns the corner shop – all through her own eyes. With the benefit of being independent though, we can see that she is not completely fine and actually, the other people in her life know that too. Deep down, so does she.

*spoliers but not very specific ones* At times it is a hard read, and I would say that the author has done some research into PTSD and coping mechanisms for terrible events and disasters. It’s absolutely worth the time though – I really enjoyed getting to know not just Eleanor, but the rest of the people in that world too.

I am looking forward to seeing what Gail Honeyman writes  next, and who she introduces to the world! Given that this novel won the 2018 Costa Debut Novel award, I think it’ll be a good one!

 

Thanks to Harper Collins for letting me read an advance copy through Netgalley – all opinions are my own, of course!

Merry Christmas! 1of25 #ReadwithRD

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So, it’s January and I’m doing a Christmas book review. Just think of it like I’m super organised.

christmas pudding

Jeanette Winterson’s “Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days” is a beautiful book, first and foremost. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but it’s hard not to when it’s so aesthetically pleasing. Cloth-bound in navy and adorned with silver filigree type illustrations front and back, it’s a joy to read. The only slight niggle I have is that I kept looking for the non existent ribbon – it feels like it should have a navy blue or even navy and silver plaited ribbon bookmark.

12 days

Luckily, the contents deliver on the promises the cover holds, and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s set out as a short story anthology, interspersed with recipes. The theme is Christmas, but the topics Winterson covers extends to giving thanks for all you have, remembering those who are lost to you and how to make the most delicious gravlax.

 

Christmas stories, especially short ones, have a tradition of being ghost stories, or murder mysteries. Something about the eternal gloom of a Winter’s day, or maybe the ethereal mist if Victorian London, evokes a feeling of unease and a look to the past. What is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, after all, if it’s not a ghost story? (Minor spoilers ahead, although I am pretty sure you all know what the ending is by now) Scrooge spends the time, real or imagined, reliving his past snubs and bad behaviour before coming to the realisation that it is not too late to change, that redemption is available to all. Even him.

 

Winterson’s stories tell tales of wedding day brides getting revenge, long dead murder victims getting peace and Christmas sceptics finding festive cheer. I think I share a lot of the same outlook as she does – not a Christian believer but happy to buy in and engage with the notion that the 12 days are about spending time with friends and family, those that love us and care for us, and that we love and care for in return – God or no God. There is a story that tells the story of the Nativity through the eyes of the hapless donkey, which is beautifully written. Another story is a first person narrative where the sex is unclear – something that dawned on me about halfway through as a clever, unassuming way to play with conventions.

12 days open book

Interspersed with these short stories are the recipes. Not just straight recipes, and in some cases, not really recipes at all – they’re more like anecdotes from her life. Afternoons making marmalade with Ruth Rendell, and a tradition of making Christmas pudding with her Mum even though their relationship was strained in later life.  It reinforces the idea, the theme, of Christmas being a time to reflect on times gone past, on people in your life (and no longer) and almost a promise to yourself for the year ahead.

 

While I might not be about to make all of the recipes in the book, I look forward to re-reading them and the stories next December. Maybe earlier, if I need a reminder to be grateful and focus on the promises I set for myself this year.