Book review – “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week and the theme for January was one of the biggest books of the last decade. The book I chose was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a huge bestseller published in 2014, but Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, published just a few months ago, could easily go down as one of the books of the decade too. Being at the ‘literary’ rather than the ‘popular’ end of the market means it will not likely match the 20 million sales worldwide that Flynn’s novel enjoyed, but it was the most anticipated book I can remember in a very long while, its publication the most advertised, was immediately serialised on the BBC in the UK, won the Booker Prize (jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) and will definitely be dramatized at some point.

The Testaments imgIt is truly a groundbreaking novel, but curiously, in my view, less in its own right than as an extension, a continuation of, the work started with the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. What is also partly so extraordinary about The Testaments is how relevant its story remains over thirty years on from The Handmaid’s Tale. In spite of equality legislation, human rights legislation, more women in positions of power and authority, we still have world leaders able to express their misogyny openly and with impunity, and violence against women and girls seems as rife as ever. Atwood is Canadian, but her novel is a dystopian vision set in the United States, where, in the last year, we have seen the erosion of women’s reproductive and therefore health rights in some states and the substantial threat of more to come. This novel seems so urgent and necessary.

The Testaments is written from the perspectives of three women and is presented as an account of their experiences in what appears to be a declining Gilead. Atwood’s brilliant authorial technique of presenting the work as part of research seminars at the Symposium of Gileadian Studies (as she did with The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s story was gleaned from a series of tape recordings discovered in an old property) means that we have separate accounts from three individuals. The opening ‘testament’ is from Aunt Lydia, the monstrous matriarchal figure in charge of the handmaids, whom we know well from the earlier book. Her power is at its peak and we learn that she know has a statue at Ardua Hall, the training centre for Gilead’s aunts. We learn more about her early career as a judge and how she came to be recruited to the army of aunts and rose to the top.

The second ‘witness’ is Agnes, the ‘child’ of one of the leading Commanders in Gilead and his first wife, Tabitha. Agnes, of course, is not their full biological child; as we know from the earlier novel, the role of the handmaids was simply as a gestational vehicle to produce offspring for the higher orders in Gilead. Nevertheless, Agnes was loved by her adoptive mother Tabitha, until the latter died of cancer. Commander Kyle’s new wife is unhappy with the presence of her step-daughter and quickly arranges for her to be married off. Unhappy with the choices offered, however, Agnes asks to be admitted to Ardua Hall to train as an aunt. She goes there along with some of her schoolfriends.

The final witness is Daisy, a feisty sixteen year-old living in Canada. Her parents, Neil and Melanie, run a charity shop and they are all well aware of events in nearby Gilead, not least because they are taught at school about their near-neighbour, about refugees from that state, about the talismanic significance of ‘Baby Nicole’, the child smuggled out of Gilead many years earlier by a handmaid and whom the authorities desperately want to find, and they see daily the so-called ‘Pearl Girls’, Gileadian missionary women whose role is to recruit young women to their cause. When Daisy’s parents are brutally killed by a car-bomb, Gileadian terrorism is suspected and Daisy is taken into hiding. Daisy is told that she is in fact the missing Baby Nicole and is asked to enter Gilead undercover, as a prospective recruit, to connect with an outsider there and help undermine the state.

Thus the scene is set for a gripping tale. At first, I thought it could not possibly be as jaw-dropping, or the execution of literary intent as magnificent, as The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read in anticipation of the publication of The Testaments, but I’m happy to say it is, but in a very different way. If anything, I would say the plot is stronger.

Margaret Atwood
Photo from http://www.CurtisBrown.co.uk

Margaret Atwood is now 80 years old. After The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s, she has published classics in every decade – Alias Grace in 1996, The Blind Assassin in 2000 (my personal favourite), Oryx and Crake in 2003, Hag-Seed in 2016, to name but a few – will this woman ever peak?! I hope not.

Highly recommended, perhaps essential reading.

Happy New Reading Challenge!

The Christmas period never really ends for me until twelfth night – I’m a bit attached to this concept and I’m not sure why. From a Christian perspective I believe it is when the Magi are said to have arrived in Bethlehem, but personally, I feel more in tune with pre-Christian rituals, to do with celebrations of the solstice and the importance of honouring the human instinct for quiet and a slower pace at this time of year, so I am very protective of the ‘downtime’ that follows the hectic Christmas preparations. For me it means time for reflection and, since I am fortunate to have a family, time together to relax and have fun.

So, I make no apology for launching my 2020 Reading Challenge one week into the new year, and here it is!

2020 reading challenge

This is my fourth reading challenge and it has been hard to come up with new genres, so if my themes this year seem rather random, it’s because I was having to think outside the usual boxes.

Gone Girl img

I’m starting the year, the new decade, with a look back at the 2010s and have chosen what was one of the biggest selling books of the decade, and which became an international phenomenon – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was also critically acclaimed, although being at the more ‘popular’ end of the market, it wasn’t nominated for the usual high-profile literary awards. Published in 2014, I’m afraid I never read it; I confess I got it mixed up with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train so for years I thought I had in fact read it! I’ve decided to do this one on an audiobook as it’s quite long and I have some car journeys coming up this month.

 

 

The book that closed off the 2019 Reading Challenge (a novella), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, was very short so I don’t feel too guilty about setting a long one for this month. Look out for my review of that book in the coming days.

I hope you will join me at some point on the Reading Challenge this year – why not start this month and pick up a copy of Gone Girl. I am sure there will be plenty of copies knocking around in charity shops – it sold 20 million after all! If you’d like to join us, why not hop over to the Facebook Reading Challenge Group now.

Enjoy your reading year – there are some exciting titles due to be published this year. More of that in another blog!

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Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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Booker shortlist book review #2 – “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo

This year’s joint winner of the Booker Prize has won almost universal praise by readers and critics alike. In addition to winning the Booker it was named by the Washington Post as one of the top ten books of this year and British-Nigerian writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writing in the New Statesman, described it as capturing modern-day Britain.

Girl Woman Other imgWhat I liked about it, however, was less this grander aspect, but rather the quality of its story-telling. I must admit that 50 or so pages in, I was not overwhelmed! There are twelve characters in the book, all women bar one (who is trans), all black or mixed race. They are broken down into four groups of three, and each threesome is strongly connected in some way (eg mother/daughter). Each group is also connected with the others, even if only in a tenuous way (eg teacher and former pupil) and almost all are in some way connected to Amma, the first character we meet. Amma has written a play which is having its debut performance at the National and this provides the framework of the novel. Many of the characters are present at the penultimate chapter of the book, the after-party, where the differences between them and their lives are laid bare. This is interesting because the author is not only trying to draw out the similarities between the characters and their life experiences, suggested by their common characteristic of being mixed race and female, but she is also, I think, railing against the notion of such women/people being homogeneous; they are all far more than just their race or gender.

The first chapter is about Amma, her daughter Yazz , and her friend Dominique. Amma and Dominique were radical feminists in their youth and started the Bush Women Theatre Company, to give voice to black and Asian women, particularly those with (then) non-mainstream sexualities. Amma’s daughter Yazz is the product of an “arrangement” between Amma and her friend Roland, a gay writer and academic. In chapter two we learn about her life, now at university (seems as if it’s Cambridge), her issues with her parents, her diverse group of friends – all bright, high achieving young women.

I did not warm to Amma and Yazz – they felt far too ‘urban elite’ when I thought I was supposed to be getting the whole of ‘modern day Britain’, plus I did not think Amma was particularly likeable and Yazz was quite obnoxious! It started to get much more interesting with Dominique, in whom we meet a character with far more depth and vulnerability, whose story seemed to have more texture.

In chapter two, we meet Carole, a woman from a poor inner-city background whose life appeared to be heading in one bleak direction until she was taken under the wing of a teacher who saw something special in her. Carole is now a high-flying banker. The other characters in this chapter are Carole’s mother Bummi, a traditional Nigerian woman who has brought Carole up alone, and LaTisha, Carole’s school friend whose life followed a more socially predictable path, but who, in her thirties and with three children, determines she will turn things around in her retail career where she excels.

There are two more chapters each with its own group of three women and the stories get ever more diverse and interesting. These women who come later are more ‘ordinary’ than the slightly smug Amma, Yazz and Carole, but for me their stories were the more interesting ones. Some are elderly women and we go back many years to learn about their past lives.

There were times when I would have liked a bit of a ‘family tree’ or a map to show all the connections, as it can get a little confusing with so many characters, but overall it is an artfully constructed book. This book is very much a mirror, multiple stories rather than one, but still the author manages to build a plot around the performance of Amma’s play and the after-party. There is also a brilliant plot twist at the end that I did not see coming at all, and really makes you reflect on all your assumptions about race, class and identity.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, my second from the Booker shortlist, and a worthy winner. I would like to read it again to see if, second time around, knowing what I do, I feel differently about the characters and their stories.

Highly recommended.

Did you agree with the judges that this book should have been joint winner?

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#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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Book review: “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

This has been on my TBR list for years – it was a sensation when it was first published in 2001, went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was adapted for film in 2012, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Ang Lee (though critical reception of the film was mixed). However, my life at that time was rather dominated by small children – these were what I call my ‘lean years’ of reading, of adult books anyway! I determined to read Life of Pi this summer because my elder daughter thought it was brilliant and has been harassing me to read it for months. I will put my cards on the table straight away – I thought it was extraordinary. The best thing I have read since The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I finished in January.

The Life of Pi imgThe story is well-known: a young Indian boy, Piscine “Pi” Patel (a name he adopts to get back at the school bullies who taunt him with the nickname ‘Pissing’) grows up in the territory of Pondicherry where his parents own a zoo. The first part of the story gives us a detailed account of the family’s life there, including enormous detail about life for the animals in a zoo setting (I was fascinated by this and it changed my perspective on zoos). We learn in particular about the fierce Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, who is the zoo’s prized possession. I love the use of ‘naming’ in this book – the story of how Richard Parker came to be given this name is brilliant and a sign of the author’s ingenuity and creativity. The other important feature of this part of the novel is that we learn of Pi’s deeply philosophical nature, his decision to adopt three religions (Hinduism, in which he has been brought up, Islam and Christianity), much to his family’s dismay, because he can see benefits in all of them.

Difficult political events in India lead his parents to make a decision to move to Canada, taking their most precious animals with them, in order that they can start a new zoo. Shortly after leaving port, however, the Japanese freighter in which the family is travelling sinks. All souls are lost, except Pi, who escapes in a lifeboat, with, as he will soon discover, four animals – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. The first part of the journey is gruesome and terrible; the zebra has broken its leg in the fall and is soon brutally and graphically finished off by the ravenous hyena. The hyena then attacks, kills and eats the orangutan. This is not for the squeamish! Pi believes he is going to be next on the hyena’s list until he discovers they are sharing the lifeboat with the tiger, who has been hiding under a tarpaulin for days, suffering with severe seasickness! When he does emerge, the hyena is no match for Richard Parker, who summarily kills him. This undoubtedly saves Pi’s life but it is out of the frying pan and into the fire as he wonders if he will be Richard Parker’s next meal.

What we are treated to next is many months of a precarious symbiotic existence on the lifeboat – boy and tiger trying to survive. It is a quite extraordinary feat that the author can make 227 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean such edge of the seat reading. First we have Pi’s incredible ingenuity, the powerful survival instinct which enables him to stretch the meagre rations in the lifeboat’s emergency pack, and utilise all the supplies available. Second, there is the way he manages Richard Parker to ensure that he, Pi, becomes the alpha animal – he uses all his zoo knowledge, plus his exceptional courage, to teach the tiger submissiveness and this enables them both to survive. Third, there is the incredible storytelling, the highs and lows of shipwreck (at one point they land on a lush island, only to discover that it is dominated by deadly carnivorous plants) plus Pi’s account of his own mental health.

We know that Pi will survive – the novel begins with the author meeting the older Pi in Canada, and Pi promising to tell him his story – but this makes the account no less tense, so close to peril do the pair exist. There is a brilliant twist at the end, which I will not disclose, but it kind of leaves you breathless. Untethered!

I found this a profoundly fascinating book that you can read on so many levels. It is a philosophical tract about the nature of the divine. It is a book about the triumph of the human spirit when faced with adversity. It is a book about the relationship between man and beast. It is also, quite simply, a brilliant yarn about that most traditional of stories, the shipwreck and the survivor.

Absolutely brilliant, loved every second of it, highly recommend it, can’t believe it took me so long to get around to it!

I’d love to hear about a book on your TBR list that you loved once you finally got around to reading it.

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