The Handmaid’s Tale

I find that there are some books that always seem to be on my ‘to read’ list, yet I never get round to reading them. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale definitely falls into that category; I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but have never gotten around to it until now.

It tells the story, in her own words of Offred, a handmaid in the totalitarian state of Gilead. Rules are dictated by fundamentalist Christian values and any disobedience is punishable by death, or a life in the Colonies, dealing with radioactive waste. Handmaids have one purpose, to provide Commanders and their wives with children, in a world where birth rates have fallen dramatically and children are rare. Offred’s story jumps between the present and past, both before the state of Gilead was created and her training as a Handmaid.

Having now read this story, I cannot quite believe I waited so long because it is amazing. Every page is filled with tension and heightened drama; Offred’s voice is so clear and yet so disconnected, so broken. I loved the way her voice was written, particularly the obsession with words that she has, and the emptiness that echoes throughout the story. And despite having been written in the 1980s the story feels so relevant today. I was gripped within the first few pages and have barely wanted to put the book down since then.

An incredible, challenging, thought-provoking story, and one that kept me utterly gripped right up until its conclusion.

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‘Surprise Me’ Sophie Kinsella

Sylvie has been together with her husband for 10 years, and they have a happy life with their twin daughters. However, when they are told they could have another 68 years together they both panic. How will they keep things interesting for another 68 years? Sylvie comes up with a plan that they should each surprise each other as often as possible. The only problem is that as the surprises unfold she discovers a hidden secret that she hadn’t been expecting…

In some ways this was a little different than the previous Sophie Kinsella novels I’d read, focusing on an established relationship rather than the rom-com format of her previous stories. The storyline also followed a slightly darker path as Sylvie discovers the secret her husband has been keeping from her.

However, like Kinsella’s other novels there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and it was a quick, enjoyable page-turner. I did feel slightly frustrated with elements of the plot, but to say much more would spoil the ending for anyone who has not read it yet…

Not my favourite Sophie Kinsella novel, but enjoyable all the same.

‘Let Me Lie’ Clare Mackintosh

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed both of Clare Mackintosh’s first two psychological thrillers, I Let You Go and I See You. When I saw that a third novel was being published in 2018 I couldn’t wait to read it.

Let Me Lie tells the story of Anna, who is struggling through life looking after a newborn baby whilst coming to terms with the fact that both her parents committed suicide within months of each other. That is, until a card arrives through her door one morning with one simple message: “Suicide? Think Again.” Anna’s immediate response is to go to the police looking for them to re-open the investigation but as events continue it would appear that involving the authorities will only lead to danger for Anna and her daughter.

Like Mackintosh’s previous novels this story contained plenty of twists and turns which kept me guessing all the way through. The characters were fully developed and the multiple narrative perspectives created tension which built to a dramatic climax.

I would highly recommend this novel, particularly for fans of crime fiction and psychological thrillers.

The Queen of Wishful Thinking

I always like to follow up a book about challenging topics and ideas with something a little lighter and more cheerful, and Milly Johnson’s books are usually perfect for that.

In this case the story follows Bonnie, who after a sudden change in job, begins to make changes in her life, the most significant being leaving her controlling husband. She finds herself more and more drawn to her new boss, Lew, but unfortunately for Bonnie, her ex-husband is about to unleash a secret about her past that threatens to destroy her new life.

I have to say this wasn’t quite as light-hearted as I was expecting – in fact at some points it offered a rather bleak view of the world, and relationships. However, it all ends happily, and it made for an interesting quick-read which was (as always with Milly Johnson’s stories) full of positive messages about second chances and friendship.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I first read Frankenstein as a teenager and found it to be a thought-provoking, challenging read, and so it continues to be, even after numerous re-readings.

For those unfamiliar with the story it follows the lead character of Victor Frankenstein, who becomes obsessed with creating life, and eventually succeeds, only to abandon his creation, which has taken the form of a hideous monster. Frankenstein soon becomes all too aware of the consequences of this decision as the Creature he made enacts his revenge, and makes a disturbing request of Frankenstein: that Frankenstein creates a companion for him.

The story follows three main narratives: the letters from Walton, the explorer determined on finding the North Pole, at the start and end of the story; Victor Frankenstein’s feverish tale of the life he created; and within the centre of the story, the Creature’s narrative, showing his desire for companionship and loneliness.

Frankenstein is a story that always provokes multiple readings and responses. Who is the real monster? Does responsibility for events lie with the Creature, who commits cold-blooded murders throughout, or with Frankenstein who so cruelly abandoned the being he brought into life? Where should our sympathies lie as a reader? We are deliberately presented with many examples of the single-minded pursuit of individual ambitions and desires (including those of Walton) and I think Shelley wants to leave the reader considering the dangers of selfishly chasing one ideal with no consideration to the well-being of others.

Ultimately though, this is a page-turning, exciting story – gothic, early science fiction, horror. The absolute best moment by far (to my mind) has to be at the beginning of chapter 5, when Frankenstein finally achieves his pursuit of creating life. It is atmospheric, unsettling, wonderfully gothic and never fails to send shivers down my spine.

Under A Pole Star

Under a Pole Star tells the story of Flora Mackie, a Victorian woman with grand plans to explore Greenland, following her inconventional upbringing. In the midst of an unhappy marriage, her first expedition brings her to meet Jakob de Beyn, part of a rival expedition from the US. Their paths cross several times again, and they begin a romance.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I was expecting to. At almost 600 pages it tended to lack pace at several points. I also found the romance between Flora and Jakob to lack chemistry; one moment they’re not interested in each other, and the next beginning an affair.

It wasn’t terrible, there were some well-written descriptions, but I don’t think I would be personally recommending this book.

Jane Austen the Secret Radical

At any given point in time, I will probably be somewhere through a re-read of Pride and Prejudice. Even though its been months since I picked it up, I can tell you that right now I’m at Mr Bingley’s house with Elizabeth, having to endure Miss Bingley’s snide remarks while waiting for Jane to recover. I love all of Jane Austen’s novels (Northanger Abbey is my next favourite, Sense and Sensibility my least favourite).

I read nowhere near as much literary criticism as I should, but when I saw this book by Helena Kelly I knew I wanted to find out more. And I really enjoyed reading it. It takes a book at a time and explores how the texts reveal an awful lot about Austen’s viewpoint on a wide range of challenging issues. Some of those issues were not new to me; most people are aware of the allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park, but it was fascinating to explore fully each novel in turn with a focus on the messages contained within.

If there’s one criticism, I would say I didn’t particularly enjoy the fictionalised accounts of Jane’s life based upon her letters at the start of each chapter, as I felt they detracted from the exploration of her views which were based on her writing. However, this is well worth a read for fans of Jane Austen who want to explore in more depth her stories and themes.