The Handmaid’s Tale

Never has a book made me so angry as The Handmaid’s Tale.  This isn’t even the first time I have read Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, it’s not even the second time I’ve read it and yet I can’t remember having such a strong reaction in my previous readings. 

Written in 1985 and set in an America of the not so distant future it describes a country of significant patriarchal rule, where women are little more than objects or worse vessels for carrying babies for wealthy couples.  It is a country full of few pleasures or enjoyments, of rigid routine and the ever present threat of being apprehended or killed for breaking some minuscule rule.  It is also a country in transition, where those who live through this horrific ordeal still remember the way life used to be; a memory that can mean death.  

So many parts of this novel made me so angry.  The treatment and belittlement of women in the new country is just shocking and so incredibly well written, but it is the life before that has the most profound effect on me.  The gradual process of removing women’s rights is so cleverly done and so manipulative, exactly as any attempt to dehumanise and abuse any group of people always is.  When the protagonist wakes up one day to find her bank cards have all been blocked and that all the money in her account has been transferred to her husband is unbelievable, but what is worse is her husband’s acceptance of this.  I just remember reading it and thinking how can you be so compliant? How can her husband just accept this?  The hardest parts for me to read were the reflections on her life with her husband and her child, especially when she describes their escape attempt.  I found these parts of the novel so uncomfortable and sickening to read, so much so that I skim read a lot of them.  I can’t quite pinpoint if this is because of my age but the thought of a government taking your entire life and your child as well doesn’t bear thinking about and it made me feel sick to my stomach. 

I don’t quite know why The Handmaid’s Tale has never made me so angry before.  Maybe I have become so much more politically and socially aware since I last read it 5-6 years ago, maybe it is because of everything that is currently happening in the world or maybe it is simply my age, who knows.  All I know is that I have never had such a strong negative reaction to a novel in recent memory.  This is such a thought provoking novel, it is brilliantly written and narrated – the Historical Notes at the end are pure genius and a stark and cold realisation as to how insignificant women had become – and I truly believe it is a novel that everyone should read. 

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Some February Reading 

As was inevitable, life got busy! It’s the end of half term and as I sit with my morning cup of tea I thought about catching up on my blog posts and then I realised that I would have to write posts for three books, which seems a tremendous challenge so I have mushed them altogether.  

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard


I started this on a miserable train journey to London and I was hooked immediately.  I have heard quite a few people talking about it and seen various posts about it recently and I knew it was something I wanted to read.  The Light Years is the first instalment in a five book series following the lives of the Cazelet family, wealthy owners of a timber company.  It centres on two summers shorty before the Second World War spent at the family home in the country with three generations of the family visiting, the ages ranging from 70s right down to new born babies.  Howard’s writing is superb and I was quickly enthralled in the lives of the family and their servants; there were two moments in my reading where I actually gasped out loud and couldn’t believe what I was reading, one because of my preconceived idea and one from just shock in general.  I loved it so much I have lent it to my mum and I want her to hurry up and read it so I can talk to her about it.  I imagine I will write a big review when I have read the entire series and I cannot wait to start book two.  It’s on my kindle so I was thinking about leaving it until I go to Canada but I don’t know if I can wait that long. 

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy


I am slowly making my way through Thomas Hardy’s collected novels; I love his writing and the Wessex settings especially as I grew up in the area and still live within easy driving distance.  Under the Greenwood Tree is Hardy’s first novel and centres on a small village and the growing relationship between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day.  It explores a change in the musical ritual of the village and introduces the idea that change was beginning to affect all areas of rural Victorian life.  This wasn’t my favourite Hardy novel, I liked it but I didn’t feel the need to rush home to it and I wasn’t overally interested in the storyline.  I wonder if it is because it was his first novel and he was still developing his craft; I might try and read the remaining novels in publication order. 

Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter


I randomly picked Last Seen Wearing up two days ago having watched ten minutes of the Inspector Morse episode on ITV3.  I have vague recollections of attempting to read the first Morse book when I was teenager but I didn’t get very far.  I love it when I pick up a book on a complete whim and it turns out to be an amazing read and that was certainly the case with this one.  Dexter’s storyline is fantastic and I kept thinking I had solved the answer and then something else big was revealed.  What was refreshing about this was that Morse also didn’t have the answers right away and so you felt you were on the exact same journey as him.  Not that I don’t love Poirot, but the fact he knows it all can make you feel a bit stupid sometimes.  Interestingly, the character of Morse seemed slightly different to the TV programme and the excellent portrayal by John Thaw.  There were parts of his character that I don’t remember being mentioned in the TV programme and it was interesting to see his inner conflict. 

January 

It is always difficult to muster the energy and enthusiasm in the freezing, icy mornings of January; after the joys of Christmas it can seem like a relentless month. Luckily for me I have had a pretty amazing start to the year, yes it has been busy but the kind of busy you don’t mind. 
Reading

Girl, Missing by Sophie McKenzie

Nomad by Alan Partridge

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale 

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (current read) 

I go through phases of scouring my local charity shops and feeling the need to buy all the books I can and this is something that I did throughout January, adding some of the pictures books to my already overflowing bookshelves. For the last year I have been listening to a variety of book podcasts and one of my favourite ones is Tea or Books? hosted by Simon at Stuckinabook and Rachel at Book Snob. Rachel has been talking about her MA in Victorian Studies which has reignited my love of the Victorian era. For months I have been searching my local charity shops for a copy of A.N.Wilson’s The Victorians (I don’t think I could justify paying full price) with no luck; I finally caved and bought it online last week only to find it a charity shop a few days later. Why is this always the way? Luckily my mock frustration didn’t last long as I found a copy of Victoria alongside it and I picked this up instead. I am looking forward to half term where I will hopefully have a chance to really get in to some of these bigger books. 

Yoga

One of my key aims for this year was to restart yoga and to consistently practise and I am so pleased with the class I am currently taking. It is run by a young teacher and is more fast paced and exciting than the class I was attending last year. It takes place in a cute little studio that I swear must be a converted garage or something and I always leave feeling so relaxed. I do have to try so hard not to laugh when we chant, but I’m starting to hold it together.  

Shenanigans

I finally made it to London to visit one of my oldest friends; she had a baby at the end of November and we spent the entire day – with baby – just strolling about and gossiping. I LOVE walking around London even when it is a bit grey and miserable outside and luckily my friend lives in Central London so she was able to walk to meet me at Waterloo and we just moseyed on from there. Obviously there were two shops I just had to go to (Lorna Jane and Persephone Books) but other than that we had no real plans and just went where the mood took us. Another of my favourite things to do in London is visit the second hand book stalls under the bridge by Waterloo (I’m sure it has a proper name). I love scanning through the books but managed to resist temptation, especially as it was nearing my train time. Freya bought some really cool retro books for baby as you are never too young to have books.  

In my department we are super cool and have decided to host a Come Dine with Me competition with each member of the department hosting a night each month. To ensure no cheating takes place we have had to organise our menus in advance so that we can’t change it after someone else’s night. This month’s meal was amazing and Caribbean themed and she has set the bar high. I am planning a Murder Mystery themed evening which I am excited about but I am also in the process of organising a move so that could be somewhat problematic with boxes everywhere although I might just have to deal with that.  


After a long day at work my new book greeted me on the doorstep when I arrived home!

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale


I first heard English Passengers discussed on an episode of the BBC radio shoe A Good Read and it automatically found its way on to my TBR list.  As always with a book I want to read I went on a frantic search of local charity shops – I am an expert and super speedy at this – and I was successful on my quest.  Another common feature of my charity shop success is that the book spent a fair few months just on the shelf as it takes me forever to get round to reading it.  When choosing my new read a few weeks ago I narrowed it down to three and then did  ‘eenie, meanie, mine, mo’ an old fail safe that I haven’t done since childhood.  I have told myself I will read the other two books next and so far I’ve been true to this as I’m currently reading the second book now. And so I began English Passengers.

It is a book set in two different time periods: 1850s England and Tasmania (or Van Diemens Land) of the 1830s, a narrative choice that makes it clear that both strands will eventually meet up.  The English/Isle of Man side of the narrative focused on a smuggling ship, the Sincerity, and its mission to overload its secret cargo of Tabasco and brandy.  Due to some tricky incidents at English customs, the ship – originally from the Isle of Man – is forced to take on board some English passengers who are on their way to Tasmania in the search for the Garden of Eden.  These passengers include the Reverend Wilson, a botanist called Renshaw and Doctor Potterq, who has a keen interest in racial profiling.  The Tasmanian part of the narrative largely focuses on Peevay, an aboriginal tribe member whose mother was raped by a white man, instantly making him an outcast from both parts of society.  Throughout the novel we hear from numberous different characters in the build up to both narrative strands joining together. 

At first I was unsure about English Passengers; it begins with the smuggling ship and to be honest I didn’t have much interest in this. I was starting to think I had made the wrong reading choice for that particular moment in my life when the Tasmanian part of the narrative kicked in and I was hooked.  I found this the most gripping part of the entire narrative.  There are just so many harrowing moments: from the description of Peevay looking at his reflection in a lake for the first time and believing he is a monster as he is mixed race to the unpresidented slaughter of an entire tribe of aboriginals on one of the beaches, it is just shocking that they received this type of brutality.  I was aware that this type of massacre existed, especially after visiting various museums when I was in Australia, but it didn’t make it any less appalling to read about.  The sheer arrogance of the British colonies is unbelievable, especially when they essentially round up all of the aboriginals and stick them on Flinders Islamd to attempt to ‘civilise’ them, but the reality is they watch them die out; an event that, along with so many others in the novel, is based on real life.  It just amazes me that this lack of understanding for other cultures is something that is still so relevant today (especially as I’m reading a lot in the news about America this morning) and it is this part of the narrative that I found the most interesting and engaging.  Although that being said the racist Doctor Potter has the best comeuppance at the end of the novel, possibly one of the best fates of a character I have ever read about.  

For me this was an interesting, engaging and easy to read novel, although I was pretty much just living for the moments in Tasmania as these were by far the most interesting and the bits that made me want to go and discover other books about similar parts of history.  And for me that is one of my favourite things about reading. 

Nomad by Alan Partridge


When I was very young I have a vague recollection of watching an episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You on BBC2 and having no idea what was going on.  Was this man for real?  Surely this can’t be a real chat show with actual celebrities I hadn’t even heard of.  From that moment on I had an idea of the name Alan Partridge but I just dismissed him as some kind of ‘adult’ humour I didn’t really understand.  Years later at university my best friend properly introduced me to Alan and since then I have become a huge fan, in fact boyf and I regularly rewatch all Alan Partridge series on Netflix (alongside The Office and Derek) when we can’t decide on what else to watch and we need to make a decision sometime this century.  He is just ridiculous, but I think that is part of his everlasting appeal in my eyes…that and the fact his shows have some of the easiest to remember quotes that boyf and I can apply to most situations.  Maybe the only reason we are still together is our mutual appreciation of Alan; I bought him three Alan based gifts for Christmas and he bought me two.  It is safe to say, it’s a slight obsession.  One of those presents was Nomad.

Nomad is Alan Partridge’s journey in his father’s footsteps, walking 160miles along the South East of England from Norwich to Dungeness.  As a former BBC TV presenter he makes it very clear on multiple occasions throughout the book that this is truly an homage to his father, it is not because he would like a walking based TV programme similar to the ones presented by Clare Balding, Michael Portillo and Julia Bradbury.  The fact he journeys 120 miles out of his way to accoost the aforementioned presenters’ agent to ask for the umpteenth time if he can get a TV commission should not make his walk seem like a desperate attempt to get back on the telly.  His attention grabbing antics when gatecrashing a live TV interview should not been seen as another failed attempt to get on the telly.  He is doing this walk in memory of his father who also once made the same journey – albeit by car – as Alan keeps reminding the readers. 

You definitely have to be a fan of Alan’s to truly appreciate this book.  Throughout there are comments about his life that link back to his TV shows, his autobiography I, Partridge and his film Alpha Papa, although Alan obviously doesn’t acknowledge that these are books, films etc.  It is is complete and utter lack of self awareness that makes me love him and this is apparent throughout the book; he is just a desperate hasbeen who is determined to make some kind of mighty comeback and it is that delusion that makes the book so entertaining.  It is a huge piss take on ‘celebrities’ and the desperation of fame and I think if you approach it with that in mind – which I am sure any fan of Alan’s would do – then it is an entertaining, light hearted read. 

Health and Wellbeing Goals


Whilst I didn’t do any blogging in 2016 I did spend the past year slowly falling in love with exercise.  After years of spontaneously joining gyms or half heartedly running/doing yoga I came back from Australia (ok so maybe I’m lying a little bit about the time frame as I came back in August 2015) and I was determined to stick with exercise and ultimately feel fitter and healthier.  I am lucky that I have always been slim, however as the fitness world keeps telling us that doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy.  Despite a minor blip towards the end of the year as the nights grew darker and shorter, I have been pretty good at sticking to my fitness goals and I am determined to up my game slightly this year and see it through to the end of the year. 

1. Running

I spent a lot of last year in the gym focusing on weights and toning, having been told on many occasions I need to be careful of the amount of cardio I do due to weight reasons, I have always avoided too much running despite being good at it at school.  Some colleagues of mine ran The Great South Run in October in memory of another colleague who passed away last year and this year I have decided to join them.  This comes with some challenges as I haven’t run in a long time and I need to make sure I build myself up slowly and keep a balanced diet that will fuel me in this challenge.  I also need to work on finding some good music/podcasts to listen to as the realisation that I will be running for (hopefully) just under two hours means I am going to need something to keep me going…I forgot how boring running can be. 

2. Yoga

I love yoga.  It is so relaxing and yet can be challenging.  I love the principle behind it and how it can be used to help structure your life and your approach to life.  In this increasingly busy and hectic world we live in it becomes more and more important to take that time for oneself and to really focus on what makes you and your body happy.  I have followed Yogagirl on Instagram and her book for a few years now but I still haven’t found time to properly read it and that is something I would love to do this year.  For a few months I attended a yoga class which I found really helped me with the basics, but it didn’t fully challenge me so I am looking forward to starting with a new class with a friend of mine.  She currently goes to a yoga teacher who has worked with some celebrities I admire so I am really excited about this.  


3. Women’s Health

For the past two Christmases my grandparents have given me a subscription to Women’s Health magazine.  I have gone through phases in my life where I have been a magazine subscriber but I stopped bothering when I found too many magazines only focused on celebrity nonsense which I can’t be arsed with.  However in Women’s Health I think I have found my perfect magazine.  I find it so interesting and the mix of health, fitness ideas, recipes and interviews with celebrities who care about their health is just what I want from a magazine.  I need to be better at finding the time to sit down and read each issue when it comes through my letter box, especially as I have tried a few recipes from them other the year and they have been amazing.  

4. Healthy eating

I have a slight addiction to fitness cookbooks.  I am a lot of fitness blogger/vlogger/instgram users’ dream as I get a little obsessed and always want their cookbooks on my shelves.  Luckily I am not so easily led that I just buy them and never use them, with books by Madeleine Shaw, Deliciously Ella and Clean Eating Alice being some of my favourite and most used books of 2016.  I am definitely starting to focus more on what I eat and trying to be healthier.  I know it is a given, but I notice a real difference in my mood and my skin when I don’t eat well.  In fact I know if I have eaten too much chocolate as I always seem to break out in spots the day afterwards. This doesn’t mean I deprive myself of chocolate, but I certainly try and limit the amount I eat as I hate having spots – who doesn’t!  One book I am super excited about this year is Kayla Itsines’ first one.  Having followed her on Instagram since my return from Australia I am looking forward to trying some of her recipes and hopefully seeing an improvement in my fitness and my skin in general. 

5. Skincare

This was originally a post about exercise, but I couldn’t think of five exercise goals and I wanted five so I changed it to a general well being post.  I am terrible about moisturising my skin and this is my biggest goal of 2017.  I have always been good at looking after my face and my sister’s very handy job as a beautician and Clarins expert means that I always have lots of lovely Clarins products to help me remain young (ish) looking and my skin feeling good.  I am religious about removing my make up, cleansing and adding my face moisturiser and lip salve before bed (I always refer to “putting my face on” something my boyfriend particularly hates as he hates vaseline) and I am going to apply this religious regimeto moisturising   my body too…no one wants dry skin.   Luckily my boyfriend bought me some amazing body butter from The Body Shop, a shop I never think about going in to.  I have the Fuji Green Tea one and the Vanilla Chai and both smell gorgeous which does make this resolution much easier.  

An Absent Year


Despite what the picture might imply I haven’t spent the past year just sunbathing besides the sea in a hot country.  At the end of 2015 I decided I needed a break from blogging; I wasn’t enjoying it very much, my life had suddenly become much busier and I felt restricted by this constant need to write reviews of everything I had read.  I didn’t intend to take an entire year off but that’s the way it went and I’m happy with that.  In recent months I have started to reconnect with the blogs I follow, reading more book reviews and just general reviews and it has reignited my interest in blogging, so much so that I think I might begin blogging again.  I say think because there is a chance I will start this up again and then find that life gets in the way, but that is just one of those things.  I am going to make some slight changes to the content and the look of my blog as I would like to write about other things besides books; books will always be a key part of my blog, but I am aiming to capture other parts of my life too.  For now we will see how it goes. 

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow

  
Title: The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow

Author: Mrs Oliphant

Published: 1890

Challenges: Women’s Classic Literature

Synopsis:

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow was reprinted by Persephone Books alongside another novella by Mrs Oliphant entitled Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund.  In the first story, Mrs Blencarrow is a respectable widow living with her children in a large house in a country village.  It is the winder and she has thrown a party for the village, one attended by a flighty, spoilt young girl named Kitty.  Kitty is upset because her parents disapprove of her love interest, but she is determined to marry him regardless.  It is during their secret elopement to Gretna Green that Kitty discovers a dark and mysterious secret about Mrs Blencarrow and brings back the news that might ruin her neighbour.  In Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund Mrs Lycett- Landon’s husband ‘disappears’ on a trip to London for work.  Mrs Lycett-Lamdon’s suspicions bring her to London and after checking her husband’s usual haunts – discovering some lies along the way – she discovers him living happily in London…with a new, younger wife! 

My Thoughts

I am going to discuss both novellas separately as I have different views on both of them.  The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow was a brilliant read.  It is shrouded in mystery right from the beginning when a hidden voice calls into a dark room “are you there?” I kept trying to second guess the actual mystery and I wasn’t far off if I’m honest…in fact as soon as Kitty and her lover (whose name escapes me) venture to Gretna Green, the home of quick marriages, I knew exactly what Mrs Blencarrow was hiding.  The characters are perfectly drawn caricatures of a village society, with Kitty’s mother, Mrs Bircham is just a malicious old bat.  She is mortified when Kitty elopes, but the news of Mrs Blencarrow’s secret marriage makes it suddenly acceptable because she feels there is someone or something more scandalous than her daughter in the village.  

On the other hand, I didn’t really enjoy Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund.  I found the story very slow and I wasn’t really very interested in the characters or what happened to them. I know I read it, but I’m pretty certain I didn’t take much of the story in.  I can see why these two novellas were published together and I was quite surprised when I saw that they were published in the Victorian era.  Their content about women and marriage is quite shocking for Victorian times, with the women in the novel refusing to submit to the laws of marriage or to the men in their life that make silly mistakes.  In Mrs Lycett-Landon’s defence, although I didn’t like the story, I did appreciate how she refused to listen to her husband’s excuses and continued to live her life without him.  Mrs Oliphamt’s writing is certainlyahead of her time in that respect, but, whilst enjoyable, this hasn’t been my favourite Persephone read. 

The Classics Club Spin #11

  
I haven’t taken part in a Classics Club Spin for a few spins but as we are coming up to the holiday season and I will hopefully have a bit more time on my hands I’m feeling optimistic about this spin (famous last words).  The rules are simple, pick 20 books from your list, number them and on Monday 7th December a random number will be picked and then that is the book you need to read by the 1st February…argh 2016! 

I was hoping to group my books, but with 25 left to read I just decided to remove 5 that I don’t really fancy.  I then discovered the shocking fact that there are only 6 books by women left on my list.  I would like to think this is because I have read a lot of the books by female authors and I have to certain extent, but I think if I looked closely my list would be quite male dominated.  If I were to write my list today I imagine it would like very different.  Anyway, below is my lovely list with female authors plonked in every so often: 

1. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens 

2.The Beautiful and the Damned – F.Scott Fitzgerald

3. A Room with a View – E.M. Forster

4. Persuasion – Jane Austen 

5. The Forsyte Saga – John Galsworthy

6. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

7. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy 

8. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen 

9. Women in Love – D.H. Lawrence

10. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

11. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

12. Emma – Jane Austen 

13. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien

14. The Jungle Book – R. Kipling

15. The Warden – Anthony Trollope

16. Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon

17. A Farewell to Arms – Ernst Hemmingway

18. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins 

19. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins 

20. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 

Good luck to everyone taking part! 

Berlin

A somewhat belated post on my half term jolly over to Berlin.  I forgot I half started to write this and I’m sure it is just rambling but either way it is here. 
  

On my return from Australia in the summer I made a mini promise to myself/set myself a challenge to visit more countries and I made a start this half term with a visit to Berlin. The more I think about the more I wonder why I’ve never been to Germany before: it’s relatively close to England and I did GCSE German so surely it seems a more natural choice than France or Spain.  But for whatever reason this was my first trip to Germany and I loved it! 

Berlin is a gorgeous city. The architecture is beautiful, especially the pre war buildings and buildings on the West side of the city, it is insanely green and leafy and it’s surprisingly cheap.  In fact the whole of Germany seems pretty green, as we flew over it I was amazed at the sheer amount of forest.  We stayed on the West side of the city, which was good but meant a looooong walk to any of the main sites, such as the Reichstag Building (photo at the top).  I don’t mind walking but even I think we walked way too far on the first day. 

  
To save our legs a little bit and to ensure we saw as much of Berlin as possible we bought two day tickets for a Hop On/Hop Off bus (one of my favourite things and again so cheap) and off we went. Driving past and stopping at places like Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral (pictured above), a few museums, including Topography of Terror which we visited and East Side Gallery. 

  
East Side Gallery is a section of the Berlin Wall that has been turned into an art gallery, which is a pretty cool use of something that was seen as a horrible and inhumane feature of the city.  And it was here that I had the best curry wurst of my trip.  In fact I think I only lived on curry wurst, bratwurst and mulled wine all holiday. 

  
I was pretty desperate to visit the zoo, as I have a childlike obsession with just watching animals for hours.  We spent at least six hours at Berlin Zoo (my boyfriend is a lucky guy) and it was pretty amazing. Although I would definitely recommend it, I’m not sure about some of the animal enclosures, they looked a bit dated.  My sister’s favourite animal is a gorilla, so in every zoo I visit I make it my mission to get at least one good gorilla shot for her; this one looks particularly pleased.  On my zoo travels I have noticed that elephants and giraffes always seem to get the best houses with the most beautiful and often oldest buildings in the grounds.  I have seen many of their houses dating back to the mid 20th century, I wonder why that is?  So far I have noticed it at London Zoo, Berlin Zoo and Taronga Zoo, but who knows where next. 

Of course  any visit to a new country/place means a new interest in books about or set in that place and Berlin has been no exception.  I picked up a great little book about The Berlin Wall to educate me on way it was built and I have added a huge amount of fictional books to my Amazon wish list.  As always I’m open to suggestions on any books or films you think I should read based in or around Berlin.  I’m determined to learn more about the history and culture of the city.  

I think Berlin will definitely be on my ‘return to’ list for travelling.  The next question is, where to go next?