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: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Care to join us for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month?

A few days ago I published a review of Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe, which was the July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The book seemed to go down quite well and I enjoyed it too. The theme for August is ‘a beach read’, reflecting the fact that many people will be going on holiday this month (if, like me, you are confined to school holidays). But even if you are a holiday free agent and choose June or September to go away (I know I would!), August is often languid month when the pace of things tends to slow and you can take the opportunity to rest mind and body. The ‘beach read’ theme reflects this too as I wanted something that will be pure pleasure and not too demanding of our normally over-taxed brains.

The Lido imgI have chosen a book which caught my eye a couple of months ago – The Lido by Libby Page. It concerns a friendship between two women, 86 year-old widow Rosemary and 26 year-old Kate, who strike up a bond when their local outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, south London, is threatened with closure. The two women have different reasons for wanting to campaign to keep the lido open, but they are brought together in a common cause.

The book has received pretty universal praise, so far as I can tell, is a Sunday Times bestseller and looks like being one of the hits of the summer. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ll be doing some family visiting and some holidaying myself over the next few weeks, and after some books which have been either quite tough reads on the reading challenge this one feels like a reward for hard work!

I hope you will join us on the challenge this month. Hop over to the Facebook page if you’d like to join the group.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Does your reading taste change in the summer or at holiday time?

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#KeepKidsReading week – book recommendations for summer

As is my seasonal habit, I’ve been scouring publishers’ lists, bookshelves and indeed my local library to come up with a few recommendations that your kids might be interested in. Yesterday, I posted about the Summer Reading Challenge launched this week which is an encouragement to mainly primary school age children to read six books over the summer. Much is made of so-called ‘summer learning loss’, when children get so out of the habit of schoolwork that teachers notice a decline in their performance when they return in September. I don’t hold much truck with this myself; true, anything you don’t do for six weeks is going to become rusty, but the benefits of down-time, family time, play and outdoor time outweigh keeping the times tables tip top! If you are worried about it, however, keeping your kids reading (for pure pleasure!) over the long summer holiday can help maintain their literacy standards as well as help them wind down after day-long playing, and help them relax and sleep when it’s light until late and routines go to the wall.

So, here are some great titles I have spotted that I think your kids might like. I’ve broken down into age groups, but these are broad and can be a bit arbitrary, as you know. Much will depend on not just reading aptitude, but also maturity.

7-10 year olds

summer 19 recs 1

 

Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib

A beautifully illustrated book about Lula and Lenka, who are best friends and complete opposites. One day they have a falling out and they seem irreconcilable. The story is about how they come together again through patience, listening and empathy. Perfect!

 

 

Summer 19 recs 2Milton the Mighty by Emma Read

A great story for our time. Milton is a spider who discovers that he has been branded as deadly on social media and is being hunted by pest killers. He and his two best friends, fellow spiders Ralph and Audrey, must fight to restore Milton’s true reputation, but they will need the help of Zoe and her arachnophobic Dad, the humans in whose home they reside.

 

 

Summer 19 recs 3

 

Mr Penguin and the Fortress of Secrets by Alex T Smith

Really fun illustrations in this book. A nice easy adventure, the second in Alex T Smith’s series about Mr Penguin (a third is due in the autumn). Action and adventure with slapstick humour. Shades of Tin Tin, Captain Underpants and Hercules Poirot! A great introduction to mystery series.

 

 

10-13 year olds

summer 19 recs 4The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford

I have frequently declared my admiration for Ross Welford and this is another cracking title! Welford has an uncanny ability to blend adventure and peril, with wonderful sensitive and empathic characters who defy stereotypes. In this his 2019 novel, eleven year-old Georgie and her dog, Mr Mash, must save all the dogs on earth when they are threatened by a deadly virus.

 

 

summer 19 recs 5

 

Pog by Padraig Kenny

I loved Padraig Kenny’s first novel Tin and his second looks great too. Brother and sister David and Penny move to their mother’s childhood home after she dies. It is situated in the middle of a forest and they soon discover that they are not alone – Pog is a tiny magical creature who protects the boundary between the human and his own world. Tempted by the prospect of seeing his mother on ‘the other side’ David is drawn to a dark place and Pog has to help save him.

summer 19 recs 6

 

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher

The lady in the bookshop told me this had her in tears! It has been very highly praised since its publication in May. Set in London during World War Two, Pip, a young mouse, finds herself homeless and an orphan when the shop in which she lives is bombed. She must find safety and a new home if she is to survive. Pass the hankies!

 

 

Older teens and young adults

summer 19 recs 7Meat Market by Juno Dawson

A must-read author for this age group, Juno Dawson’s topics are hard-hitting but reflective of the world our young people inhabit today. This book is about the fashion industry and one young woman’s experience of it. Perfect for the #MeToo era.

 

 

 

summer 19 recs 8On The Come Up  by Angie Thomas

I have recently read The Hate U GiveAngie Thomas’s first novel. If this one is half as good it will be well worth a read. The author returns to the neighbourhood of Garden Heights, the volatile setting of her first novel, but her central character this time is a teenage rapper who finds viral success online. It is a story about how getting what you wish for might not necessarily be what you need.

 

 

summer 19 recs 9

Killer T by Robert Muchamore

This looks like a highly ambitious novel, imagining a disturbing future where science has run amok and is being misused. The Killer T of the title is in fact a deadly virus which terrorists are threatening to release onto the world unless they are paid a huge ransom. Harry and Charlie are two teenagers attending a Las Vegas high school who become caught up in the effects of the impending catastrophe. Against a background of potential disaster, supposed technological advance and rapid social change, friendship and love are the forces that truly underpin the human condition.

Now that must have whetted your appetite – I want to go and read all of these right now! I hope you will find something for your kids here. As always, the golden rule with kids reading is support whatever it is they want to read (parental guidance notwithstanding), show an interest and discuss it with them.

Happy summer reading, kids!

Are there any titles for kids that have caught your eye this summer?

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#KeepKidsReading week – the Summer Reading Challenge

I’m bursting with excitement this week – I seem to have got back into a good reading groove at last, and I’ve started another book by children’s author Ross Welford. I try to read at least one YA or children’s book a month and they are always such a treat. Ross Welford is one of my favourite authors; I loved both Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy and I’ve now started on on What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible. I’ll be posting my review of it later in the week.

2019-07-17-09.50.20.jpg

This week also sees the launch of the kids Summer Reading Challenge 2019 by The Reading Agency in association with libraries up and down the country. The theme this year is Space Chase, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Children joining the reading challenge are encouraged to read up to six books. When they join they get a ‘mission folder’ so they can keep a record of their achievements, they get stickers and rewards for each book read, and, on completing the challenge, will receive a certificate. It’s aimed at primary school children and there is also a fantastic website with games, book recommendations, competitions and the chance to write reviews. I got my kids into this every year when they were younger and it also gave me something to do with them – a weekly trip to library certainly helped to fill the long summer holidays. It’s a win-win!

“It’s on in almost every locality, it’s a delight for the children to take part in and…it’s one of the few things where you’re delighted and it does you good! What could be better?”

Michael Rosen, Author and former Children’s Laureate on the Summer Reading Challenge

I’ll be posting tomorrow with some book recommendations for your kids for this summer, so look out for that if you’d like some ideas to get started.

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Seven stories to spook you this Hallowe’en!

halloween-2870607_1280
I just adore this picture!

The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in so it must be time to curl up with a book! It’s Hallowe’en (sorry, I’m a pedant when it comes to this particular apostrophe) this Wednesday. 1st November is All Saints Day, the day we remember the dead. The night before was traditionally All Hallows’ Even, which has got shortened over the years. My attachment to the apostrophe spelling stems from a preference for the original festival rather than the saccharin, plasticised, commercialised, trick-or-treat dominated version that has taken over. I say this as a mother of three teenagers who went along with it all for many years, so no criticism at all intended (though I’m afraid I could NEVER bring myself to accept murdered schoolgirl costumes which still appal me).

However, not to be a party pooper, I thought you might you might like some Hallowe’en reading suggestions. Ghosty, spooky, scary books. Here are a few that I thought of:

  1. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – a poltergeist in an old manor house terrorises the inhabitants!
  2. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins – dramatised brilliantly for television earlier this year, a legal drama but with the spectral presence of Anne Catherick.
  3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – there will be a few of these knocking on my door next week no doubt. A brilliant, gory, scary book.
  4. The Shining by Stephen King – or anything by Stephen King really! Great movie too.
  5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt – still one of my favourite novels ever. Less about ghosts and ghouls, more about death, rituals and a dysfunctional coterie held together by a shared dark secret. If you liked The Blair Witch Project you’ll love this.
  6. Dracula by Bram Stoker – well, obviously!
  7. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – this Edwardian novella ticks all the boxes – ghosts, orphans, wicked uncles, country houses – and is the perfect length for the time-pressed who want a scare!

I hope you like these suggestions. I’d love to hear yours. I can’t bring myself to say ‘Happy Hallowe’en’ (really?) but I’ll enjoy the cold, the dark, the treats, the pumpkins, the candles and the small skeletons knocking on the door.

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